Roman empire to today
The issue of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a source of fascination for both the broad public and the scholarly world. From a European perspective, the fall of the Empire can be regarded as the end of the Classical world as it brought about a decline in literacy, urbanism, and generally all the indicators of civilization. Roman civilization is seen as the golden age of art, literature and law, a period of flourishing culture and development. In fact, both European and non-European societies have adopted Roman architectural, sculptural and legal traditions. The founding fathers hoped that America would revive the virtues of ancient Rome, and would reinvent the Roman Empire under a new formula whose basis was the constitution. By speaking of a rising empire of America, they brought back the image of the Roman republic as an enduring model, an absolute superpower whose military, political, economic and cultural dominance is incontestable. Although the decline of the Roman Empire has been a topic of discussion and writing, no scholar has ever been able to provide a definitive explanation primarily because the demise of a state is a complex matter which results from a myriad of factors. Hence one cannot say that there is one single event or causative factor, but the cumulating power of several such historical and political circumstances. More so, there are no valid predictions as to the future of America, and whether or not its fate will match that of Rome. Nonetheless, there are voices who claim America has already turned into the decadent Roman state. Their main arguments are the percentage of illiterate citizens, increasing corruption, and a high rate of illegal immigrants. Moreover, they argue that the Congress is no longer an instrument of the people but a tool in the hands of the privileged and self-interested.
Rome was founded as a farming village in the eighth century B.C. more precisely in 753, and enjoyed 12 centuries of oscillations until its fall in the fifth century a.D. During its lifespan, the Roman Empire shifted from being a prosperous and even virtuous republic to its status of corrupt empire which eventually led to its dissolution. The first major historical account of the fate of the Roman Empire was written by the English historian Edward Gibbon, and published in 1776 under the title of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Another historical account that this paper will bring into discussion is that of historian Peter Heather, more precisely of his book, the fall of the Roman Empire (2005). As far as the parallel between modern America and Rome, this paper will employ some of the conclusions and assumptions put forth by Cullen Murphy in his recent book, Are we Rome?
The date for the fall of Rome is widely accepted as 476 as that was when the Germanic Odoacer forced the last emperor of the Western Empire to abandon his position and functions. This is also the date embraced by the present paper as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, there are many other crucial moments to the decline and ultimately the fall of the Roman Empire. As far as the factors behind the fall of Rome, historians tend to argue that it was a combination of factors which contributed to the demise of the empire. Monetary trouble, moral and social decadence and Christianity are only a few such factors.
The fall of Rome did not bring about the disappearance of the classical elements of civilization which persisted into later centuries. The notion of “classic” was defined by the Roman Empire, a dictatorship supported by military force which joined together peoples from three continents. Nonetheless, its attempt to forge a “classic” culture was unsuccessful, and the demise of the Empire also brought about the shaping of new cultures shaped from the “amalgam of classics with the reformed style of Judaism that became Christianity” (Potter: 4). Nonetheless, Rome itself had changed dramatically in the period of time between the year 400 and the time of Augustus. These changes did not occur in the fifth century with the fall of Rome, but date back to the first two centuries of the history of the empire, when the civilization of ancient Mediterranean slowly disintegrated as a result of the growing absolutism of the Roman state. In fact, by the year 305 a.D., the process of disintegration could no longer be reversed. It was under Emperor Diocletian that ancient civilization was truly destroyed under the weight of development. Poverty and degradation were deeply affecting the population which was forced to renounce its freedom in exchange for survival. This way, those who were not killed by famine were forced to become branded laborers in regimented state factories. The curtain of the Dark Ages was falling across the societies of Antiquity. This period of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and roughly the year 1000 was characterized by the lack of progress in general. It was during the Dark Ages, a transitional period between Classical Roman Antiquity and the High Middle Ages, that literature, written history, but also, building activities and demographic statistics were disastrous. This period of time in the history of the world largely accounts for the view that historians have expressed with regards to the Middle Ages as a time of backwardness. As far as the Empire was concerned, when the curtain of the Dark Ages fell, it covered a paralyzed civilization in the East, and a shattered one in the West where poverty and ignorance had managed to destroy the once triumphant Western society. Their currency was worthless, trade was virtually blocked, education had been forgotten, and agriculture devastated. Moreover, the military capacity of Rome was dramatically diminished and the population scarce, with a deserted countryside and empty urban areas. Waves of barbarian invasions followed, with the Arab and Viking conquests, the Crusades and the devastations of the Turks and the Mongols which eventually generated a severe fragmentation of the territory of the former empire. In turn, this fragmentation eventually saw the re-emergence of an urban middle class in all the decentralized states that was able to resume cultural, intellectual and economic evolution in the shape of the Renaissance of the West.
In 1963 during one of President John F. Kennedy’s addresses which took place at the American University in Washington D.C., he referred to America’s peace process and reinforced the idea that the United States was in fact, seeking “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” (McChesney; Foster: 2004). His remarks came as a response to criticism of America from Soviet texts on military strategy which claimed the U.S. was preparing “to unleash different kinds of war” including “preventative war” (Ibid.) Despite Kennedy’s rejection of such claims, the notion of “Pax Americana” would become a justification of war used by those who portrayed the United States as a “benevolent Empire” (Ibid.) Kennedy envisioned a global military response to the Soviet Union’s, and consequently, the Communist expansion. Nonetheless, today the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union has long disbanded, yet the United States is regarded as an imperialist power which uses the power of arms unilaterally to its benefit. More and more people throughout the world are talking about a parallel between Imperial Rome and Imperial United States. In the past, these comparisons were particularly made by leftists or right-wing isolationists, but today they have spread and have gained more momentous than ever (Lind: 2002). Also, in the past these claims of American Imperialism seen as the second embodiment of Imperial Rome reflected a belief that U.S. politics had corrupted both America and the world. However, today these claims are made on the basis of America’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These claims were fueled by the American Administration’s speeches which culminated with President Bush’s speech at West Point on June 2, 2002 when he exposed his vision regarding the military future of the United States: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge — thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless — and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” (President G.W. Bush in Lind: 2002). However, this paper does not examine the discourse of one particular administration, be it Democrat or Republican. Instead, it strives to illustrate how a certain image of American Imperialism was created throughout the world, but also in America irrespective of the Administrations that have been in office since the American Revolution. A global Pax Americana has given rise to serious controversy. Firstly, there are those who support it led by “the triumphalist-in-chief” George W. Bush (Murphy: 127). Secondly, there are those who strongly oppose it and denounce America’s military interventions claiming that “its imperial need for secrecy, surveillance and social control, all in the name of national security, is corroding our republican institutions” (Ibid.) Nonetheless, there is also a third category that Murphy refers to as “the in-between group” (Murphy: 128) i.e. The voices who argue that America should and could be an imperial superpower, but lacks sound practical judgment.
The thesis of this paper is that the history of the Roman Empire can be matched to that of the United States in terms of economy, political power, as well as aspirations. In this sense, present day America is very similar to fourth of even fifth century Rome; this poses one stringent yet logical question: Will America follow in the footsteps of ancient Rome and meet its demise in a similar fashion? Although this paper cannot possibly answer this question, it will examine the current political, economic, social and cultural situation in America and compare it to the circumstances leading to the fall of the Roman Empire. This paper will also include a brief history of the Roman Empire, followed by an analysis of the factors which have brought its decline, and ultimately its fall in the fifth century a.D. The fourth section of the paper will consist of a parallel between Rome and America which strives to illustrate the similarities between the two superpowers. The fifth and final section will provide the conclusions of the paper.
II. The Roman Empire: A Short Overview
Instead of presenting a chronological history of Rome, this section will provide a brief analysis of the Roman contribution to posterity particularly in terms of political, legal and economic culture. Similarly to other ancient nations, the origins of Rome are clouded by legend. Legend has it the first inhabitants of Rome were the refugees from defeated Troy, led by the hero Aeneas. This claim is shared by Roman historians – such as Appian and Livy – and Roman poets alike, such as Rome’s greatest poet, Virgil who wrote his epic the Aeneid as an ode to the founding father of his city. The Roman Empire succeeded the Roman Republic whose lifespan covered 500 years, from 510 BC to the first century BC. The Republic had been considerably weakened by the conflicts between Gaius Marius and Sulla, and Caesar and Pompey. The transition from Republic to Empire was marked by several events such as Caesar’s appointment as dictator, the victory of his heir at the Battle of Actium, and the Senate granting Octavian the honorific title of Augustus. It was during the time of Augustus that the Roman Empire covered the most extensive territories encompassing England, Wales, most of Europe including the Balkans and the Black Sea, coastal Northern Africa, Egypt, and Asia Minor, i.e. Southwest Asia, and Levant i.e. The area of the Middle East bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, northern Arabian Desert and Upper Mesopotamia to the east i.e. modern day Iraq and western Iran. The inhabitants of the Empire were called Romans and obeyed Roman law.
The Empire was born into the ashes of the old Roman Republic which came to an end in 21 B.C. after a hundred years of civil war and social turmoil which had the Roman armies wage war against each other. Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian who claimed to save the republic, when in fact he was inaugurating a new form of government, i.e. The principate, and with it, the first totalitarian rule. The forms of republican government were maintained, some even until the end of the Empire in the fifth century a.D. By the second century a.D., the Roman emperor had control over immense territories, stretching from Scotland to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. Roads were built to link major and minor cities, some of which are still usable today. Naval traffic expanded. In fact, a survey regarding the shipwrecks during the Roman era showed that there were three times more shipwrecks during the first two centuries a.D. than during the period 400-200 B.C (Murphy: 42). Ancient Rome, the capital of the Empire had a population of over a million people, an impressive number which was not matched until London during the time of Shakespeare. Roman culture was largely a reinterpretation of classical Greece culture and civilization (Fears: 2005) in the sense that Rome became “the bearer of Greek culture” (Ibid.). Examples of the influence of Greek culture are the writings of Thucydides that served as model for Tacitus, and Herodotus for the historian Livy. As far as sculpture and architecture, classical Greece was also the model for Roman creations such as the Pantheon which was the embodiment of new Roman spiritual values but also of the great Greek legacy in the area of architecture. The peak of the empire in terms of territorial expansion was reached under Trajan who conquered Dacia i.e. modern Roman and Moldova, as well as parts of neighboring Bulgaria, Hungary and Ukraine, and Mesopotamia encompassing a staggering total of around 2.3 million sq miles of land, and also the Mediterranean Sea which the Romans referred to as “mare nostrum,” Latin for “out sea.” Although vast and thus heterogeneous, one of the most striking feature of Roman life in the Empire was the fact that Rome was an urban culture which meant that the vitality and prosperity of the Empire largely depended on its cities (the History Guide: A Brief Social History of the Roman Empire). The core of the Roman family was the paterfamilias, Latin for “father of the family.” It was an absolute patriarchal society in which the paterfamilias possesses “the power of a father,” i.e. complete authority over his children regardless how old they were, and over his wife. This means he could kill or sell them into slavery. He could also murder his wife if she was discovered as adulterous. The era of the Roman Empire was an age of spirituality which focused on the concept of ‘soul’. Monotheism began to grow and develop as this was the age which would generate both Christianity and Islam. The Romans believed there was an imperial divinity which had decided the Roman people was to be given an empire. The temple of this divinity they referred to as Jupiter Optimus Maximus was located in the Roman forum of every city in the empire. The notion of citizenship was also highly spiritual in the sense that people became citizens in order to honor the divinity, and their divine empire. The Roman legal tradition is also a very interesting matter. It was during the Roman republic that Roman law established the foundation for the system of jurisprudence that is still active today in half of the world. Of course, during the age of empire Roman law was refined and modified. Roman jurists such as Ulpian set up the legal system of the empire on the ideals of natural law which was interpreted as the law of God, i.e. The dichotomy between right and wrong. The duty of jurists was to translate that dichotomy into the law of mankind – jus gentium – or the law of the individual – jus civile. Both laws sprung from the concept that all men are created equal and have certain unalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Power in the Roman Empire resides in the hands of one man, more precisely the emperor. The emperor is supported by the military and the senate; he is in charge of the economy of the empire. Moreover, both “good and bad emperors controlled the expression of political opinion” (Starr: 8). This severe control of thought originated in the Hellenistic monarchies but also derived from the senatorial distinction between liberty and license which had censored the plebeians for much of the era of the Roman Republic. The Roman army was one of the greatest and most cost-efficient examples of military forces in history with over 350,000 soldiers guarding the frontier of the Empire. As far as infrastructure, the network of Roman roads and bridges was very much ahead of its time. As a matter of fact, one can see a bridge built in the first century B.C. even today. The economic unity of the Mediterranean world during the era of the Roman Empire was not reiterated until contemporary times. It is important to mention a few flourishing centers of commerce and trade throughout the empire: Cologne in Germany, London in Britannia, and Alexandria in Egypt. Wealth was the criterion for advancement in Roman government. Wealth was measured in land and represented a true source of power. Nonetheless, the land created a strong bond between the Senator and the geographical area where the land i.e. The wealth was located. In fact, “Roman Senators were required to own land and maintain residence in Italy, as well as in their native territories” (Miles: 655.). However it becomes quite clear that high officials and Senators used their influence to protect certain areas and thus their own interests. Although this does not mean they were exclusively self-seeking, it was very important that they avoided the involvement of the central Roman government in the lands in question. However, the shift from central to local interest determined a certain detachment from service to the Roman state which was not centered on private interest (Ibid.). The Roman Empire also put forth a new view on freedom and its components. This was the era when freedom came to be decoded as a set of three components which correspond to three different parts of the same entity. In this context, it is relevant to expand a little on the Roman notion of freedom and its abstract parts. First of all, there is the national component, i.e. The ideal of freedom associated with the Empire namely freedom from foreign domination. Secondly, there is the realm of political freedom per se with its sub-components i.e. The freedom to vote, and to choose one’s magistrates. The third and final component is individual freedom understood as the freedom to live according to one’s moral and social percepts provided they do not affect someone else’s freedom to do the same thing (Fears: 2005). Libertas, liberty, was both a private possession of the free individual, and a right that rested upon the structure of the Roman state. The term “libertas” thus has a wide political meaning when it refers to the right given by the state. This meaning resides in the fact that Romans believed that the liberty of the state resulted from the annual election of magistrates, and the system of checks and balances. Moreover, libertas arose from an equality that all citizens benefited from during the judicial process, and from the premise that laws were supreme and had to be obeyed by everyone (Starr: 2). By the first century a.D., i.e. during the time of Roman senator and historian Tacitus, the term libertas was slowly being modified. It continues to designate a symbol for the system of government of the late republic, but also gains new connotations such as those indicating private freedom, a very intimate form of freedom which encompasses general freedom of speech in the senate as well as respect for the senatorial institution from the Roman leader (Starr: 7). In terms of history, the legacy of the Roman Empire is truly impressive. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire several states were self-proclaimed rightful successors. The Byzantine Empire was the first, followed by the Holy Roman Empire established in 800 by Pope Leo III as an attempt to re-establish the Western Roman Empire. The fall of Constantinople also gave rise to a claim made by the Russian Tsar as to the inheritance of the Byzantine Empire. This was followed by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century who claimed that the conquering of Constantinople meant that they sat on the throne of the Roman Empire. In fact, Constantinople was not officially renamed until 1930 (source: Wikipedia). The legacy of the Roman Empire enriched global culture with such discoveries or inventions as the calendar, Christianity, Byzantine architecture and infrastructure consisting of roads that last to this day. As far as political contribution, the Roman Empire influenced various constitutions of most European states as well as many former European colonies. In terms of legislation, the modern world still employs legal thinking from Roman law. Also, the science of public administration was a Roman invention that answered their need of finding more efficient processes of governing the vast territory of the Empire. This need led to the creation of civil service and tax collection which have represented a source of inspiration for today’s legislators. Similar circumstances will generate a similar outcome since human nature does not change. History has shown that unless humankind learns from its past mistakes it is bound to repeat them. Furthermore, history is more than a mere guide into the past but a method of understanding the present as no contemporary event can escape the law of causality. The emergence of the Roman Empire was a means of ending the warfare of the Mediterranean as the Romans were not afraid to take up the weight of building an empire. The institutions of the Roman Empire, at least those who defended freedom, are very difficult, if not impossible, to transfer. In fact, their polity could not be transferred to other parts of the world as the Roman values were not universal and thus impossible to recreate somewhere else. The lesson that the Romans had to learn was that an empire could not be governed with the constitution of a small city-state as in their case. Rome was founded as a small city-state in 753 B.C., and it became a republic in 509 B.C. Nevertheless, it was still a small republic. The constitution of the republic was not able to stand tall under the immense weight of a world empire which could account for the Romans’ decision to impose a military dictatorship under the rule of Julius Caesar and his successors, as the ruling class acknowledged this was the only way the Roman state could maintain its superpower status. Indeed, a superpower such as the Roman Empire could not have gone back to being a small republic. Nonetheless, the legacy that they chose to leave behind came at a high price. The legacy was generated by the belief that all things pass, but history remains. Rome became the “eternal city,” a metaphor suggesting the Empire’s never ending prestige, whereas Roman emperors invoked the theme of Aeternitas as the legacy of the empire which has outlived its destiny in terms of art, architecture, legal tradition and spirituality.
III. Why Rome Fell
Rome was never a democratic society. Nevertheless, during the republic, power was highly diffused among consuls, senate, tribunes and tribal assemblies. All these institutions were influential to the early Roman state. Independent centers of power were slowly destroyed which led to the concentration of power in the hands of one man. This process which allowed the ruler and his direct subordinates to have control over the state began in the late period of the republic and reached its peak during the late empire when the individual was helpless in front of the state whose centers of corporate power had been annihilated. Apart from a dramatic increase in the power of the state, newly created constituencies were seizing control of certain social classes with the aim of forsaking social change in return for the gratification of their own immediate self-interest. The best examples of this particular shift in political and social distribution of power are the decision of the senatorial aristocracy to close down mines in order to weaken the commercial middle class, or the tradesmen’ guild monopolies. During the late empire this process had reached its peak but had also brought about the demise of the republic which was reduced to despotism and the severe opposition between the growing prosperous minority and the millions who would eventually perish through famine and plague. As I have previously mentioned, the decline of the Roman state was not the result of a single factor but of several which accumulated over time. By the end of the first century a.D., the peak of the Roman Empire had passed and the decline slowly started. Large parts of the population of the empire became employees of the state. This in turn, generated a considerable growth in bureaucracy which meant more money was needed for state expenditures. Another major problem became depopulation which affected not only rural but also urban areas. The main cause of the decrease in the total number of inhabitants was a very low birth rate. The Roman government tries to regulate this shortcoming through legislation, but instead of providing incentives for an increase in the birth rate, Augustus elaborate laws that punished Roman citizens that were unmarried or childless. Aside from coercive legislation, the Roman state appealed to mass population transfers that were meant either to move people to newly conquered territories or to depopulated areas in hopes of repopulation. A decrease in rural population took place because agricultural lands remained unused which led to famine. Agricultural lands were protected from barbarians by establishing fortifications. Urban population also decreased because people from cities or towns moved to rural areas in search of food which resulted in the shrinkage of urban settlements. Plague struck the Empire in a time of harsh economic conditions. In fact, the threat of famine never truly left the Roman Empire, not even during periods of economic prosperity, due to the fact that there was no strong middle class within the Roman social class system. Hence the plagues devastated Rome but did not deeply affect the neighboring tribes that would attack the Empire only three centuries later. The Antonine dynasty whose era is referred to as the “Golden Age of the Antonines” ended in 235 a.D. And left behind a devastating image of the Roman world dominated by famine and poverty. In fact, the Empire was less populated and less civilized than it was at the beginning of the first century a.D. It was at the end of the first century, more precisely around the year 96 a.D. that the decline of the empire became most tangible and obvious. The political chaos and social anarchy ended with the accession of Diocletian in 284. He was a “philosopher-king,” a Platonic ideal, both forceful and scrupulous whose monarchy was not corruptible. However, despite his qualities, his policy did not aid the empire. On the contrary, his time as emperor was practically what ensured the downfall of the empire. Diocletian expanded the civil service and doubled the number of administrative districts. This required a vast expansion of the state bureaucracy which was not economically sustainable on the long-term. Diocletian continued with a similar expansion of the military by increasing the number of troops from around 300,000 to half a million, and harsh state restrictions were imposed on trade. State control over the citizens’ life increased during the last two centuries of the Empire. In exchange for accepting state control the population received certain privileges such as sustenance understood as food subsidies offered by the government. During the era of Emperor Septimius Severus, i.e. At the end of the second and beginning of the third century, oil was distributed for free, the pork ration was introduced, and the distribution of wine was initially at a very low price, and then free. The producers and distributors of these merchandise were forced by the state to perform their duties at prices fixed by the state which now labeled them as servants of the state who had to obey the latter’s rules. This had catastrophic results on both the private and the public sectors leaving the economy in ruins. It is safe to conclude that the downfall of the Empire started long before 476 i.e. The date of the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, the decline was initiated not by the neighboring tribes, but by the very Roman government and its destructive policies. By the fifth century, the free market economy of the Empire had been replaced by a frozen society which was neither productive nor competitive. The reforms of Diocletian sealed the fate of Rome and gave way to the Middle Ages. The economic policies of the emperors had a heavy impact on citizens, and consequently on the history of the Empire. Money was acquired by the Empire through taxation or finding new sources of wealth such as land. Nonetheless, by the time of Trajan, the economic situation of the Roman Empire was precarious as emperors such as Commodus who ruled from 180 to 192 a.D. had depleted the imperial chests. Nero and other emperors reduced the value of the Roman currency in order to supply a demand for more coins (Bartlett: 5). The method for debasing the currency was to make it representative not of its own intrinsic value, but of the silver or gold it once contained (Ibid.); the process of debasing led to severe inflation. As far as taxation, emperors imposed heavy taxation on the ruling class, i.e. The senators with the aim of limiting their power. The emperors’ main help in enforcing this provision was the imperial guard paid for by the poor, who also paid for the military troops defending the borders of the empire. The situation escalated and the financial situation worsened resulting in no funds to pay the army, support the infrastructure, build ships, or protect the frontier. The Roman Empire was becoming more and more frail and vulnerable to barbarian invasions which represented the final blow as fiscal deterioration led to the incapacity of the Empire to defend its borders. The economic decline of the Empire was not avoided through technological advances. In fact, a steam engine had been invented by a Greek named Hero during the rule of Augustus, but it was not of much interest to Romans. In fact, Roman traders and producers were not interested in technological progress, but on using more labor in the process of production, more precisely slave labor thus the steam engine remained an unused invention that would not be rediscovered until as late as the eighteenth century. Economic activity severely declined especially in the Western part of the Empire where the infrastructure was also deteriorating despite efforts from the ruling class to restore them. Because economics was largely not understood, there were many governmental policies which only decreased the efficiency of the economy and induced more problems. In fact, during the first half of the third century, wealthy men involved in trade and commerce were encouraged by government policies to save up their money rather than invest it in new business. Prices began to rise and the feeble middle class went bankrupt. In fact, more and more people turned to begging and were homeless. Towards the middle of the third century piracy grew, and so did pillaging and attacks on Roman controlled cities along the coast of Northern Africa by tribal peoples coming from the Sahara. The Roman Empire relied on a primitive form of feudalism which held that workers had to be tied to their land so that they did not fail to produce their pay. This meant that in order for the emperor to be certain the workers would pay taxes – which in turn, ensured the existence of the military and the imperial guard – taxpayers needed to be obligated to work a certain land which meant they had a constant source of income. This obligation determined some small landowners to sell themselves into slavery as a method of escaping the taxation system imposed by the emperor. In this sense, freedom from taxes was more desirable than personal liberty (Bartlett: 10). Nevertheless, in 368 – during the rule of Emperor Valens – it became illegal to sell oneself into slavery (Ibid.). Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth century explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire focuses on the idea that the loss of civic virtue was conducive to the decline of Rome. This theory also strives to explain why the Romans succumbed to barbarian attacks i.e. because they gradually became unwilling to fight and live a military lifestyle. Decay is one of the most commonly invoked causes of the decline of the Roman Empire. In the case of Rome, “the decline was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness” (Gibbon: Chapter 5) i.e. The incapacity of the empire to resist under the pressure of its own enormous weight. In fact, when one looks at the size and population of the empire, one cannot help but wonder how Rome managed to subsist so long. The vast territory of the Roman Empire made it hard to control, and corruption was a plague that deeply affected imperial society. As the population of the empire came not only from the Italian peninsula, but from other lands, barbarians inhabiting the conquered lands were also regarded as Roman citizens: “The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigor of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.” (Gibbon: Chapter 38).
Religion played a key role in the demise of the empire. Ancient Roman religion was a mixture of different cult practices-based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology. Originally the empire followed an animistic tradition in which a large number of gods and goddesses were responsible for the entire myriad of human activities which they were believed to govern. In fact, after the Romans conquered Greece, they embraced the Greek gods and fused them with their own. In time, with every new territory that was annexed to the empire, Roman religion came to enclose and eventually dissolve hundreds of other religions. Another important influence to the pantheon of Roman mythology was the imperial cult which transformed emperors starting with Julius Caesar into god-like figures. Eventually, Christianity replaced the old pantheon with a monotheistic view which absorbed the remnants of the original Roman religion. The main advantage of Christianity which can also account for its rise within the Roman Empire was that it had a more human face and offered a coherent view on the world according to which slavery was an entirely human matter as in the eyes of God no one is a slave but we are all equals. Christianity was immensely appealing to the poor who were promised salvation after death; another factor that contributed to its appeal was that it was a cheap religion to join compared to others such as the Great Mother Worship for instance (Smitha: Christian Success and Martyrdom). Gibbon points at Christianity as the second source of decay for the Roman Empire. The basis of Christianity is faith combined with a strict moral code which appealed to Romans since they were a moralistic people. Also, they could relate to the religion’s concept of evil in society, as well as its positive attitude towards humanity and the Christian belief that human life was indeed sacred. Christianity also gained momentous due to a general loss of faith in government which determined people to seek refuge in religions that promised them a better life. The creation of the idea that death is followed by a better life for those who have faith gave birth to indifference and a decrease in the interest to defend the Empire. However, religion was also a source of comfort and cannot be considered entirely negative since it eased the fall and allowed people to come to terms with their conquerors: “Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman Empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” (Gibbon: Chapter 39). Constantine was the emperor who allowed religious freedom in the Roman Empire. Despite the fact that he was not a Christian himself, he issued a decree establishing religious toleration, a sign that he understood that Christians were also worthy of privileges, and that certain disputes could not be settled without imperial intervention. The eastern part of the empire was under the rule of Licinius, the successor of Galerius. In 313, Constantine came to an agreement with Licinius and issued an Edict of Tolerance which stated that the two recognized each other’s rule (Ibid.) and settled that Christianity was to be considered equal to all the other religions. In addition, they agreed that the property that had been unlawfully taken from Christians was to be returned. In fact, Constantine eventually converted to Christianity, but he was baptized only on his deathbed leaving the matter of the depth of his affiliation to Christianity somewhat unclear (Smitha: Rome’s Christian Emperors). The impact of the popularization of Christianity in the Roman Empire cannot be underrated. The clergy encouraged the virtue of patience and discouraged active virtues in society. The military spirit was buried and a large part of public and private wealth was consecrated to charity and divine devotion (Gibbon: Chapter 38).
Peter Heather’s the Fall of the Roman Empire offers a coherent theory of the decline of the Roman Empire in 476 a.D. Heather argues that the Empire was in good shape during the first two centuries a.D. He argues that high taxation was a positive trait of the organization of the empire as it increased production. Similarly, laws restricting labor are also deemed positive as they reflect high population rather than labor shortages, and that bureaucratization increases the efficiency of society without being expensive. Moreover, he claims that culturally speaking, no one group can be considered superior to another in the case of the Roman Empire, in the sense that one cannot make a comparison between Roman writers from the first and fifth century just as one cannot compare Romans to Goths (Heather: 121). His theory concerning the fall of the empire is centered on the idea that the attacks of the barbarians generated the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: “Without the barbarians, there is not the slightest evidence that the western Empire would have ceased to exist in the fifth century.” (Heather: 449). Heather’s view is that trouble emerged at the middle of the third century in Iran with the apparition of the Sassanid Persian Empire which would in fact last for over three centuries, long after the demise of the Roman Empire: “The Sassanids were sufficiently powerful and internally cohesive to push back Roman legions from the Euphrates and from much of Armenia and southeast Turkey. Much as modern readers tend to think of the ‘Huns’ as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, for the entire period under discussion it was the Persian who held the attention and concern of Rome and Constantinople. Indeed, 20-25% of the military might of the Roman Army was addressing the Persian threat from the late third century onward…and upwards of 40% of the troops under the Eastern Emperors” (Heather:). Moreover, Heather expands this argument and claims that it was the Romans’ fight against the Sassanids and their attempt to cope with the threat of Sassanid attacks that weakened the empire’s economic structure. An explanation of Heather’s theory is in order. He argues that the decades of having to cope with a continuous threat from the Sassanids were supported by stripping western provincial towns and cities of their regional taxation income. Although the Romans were able to expand their military forces in the Middle East and to stabilize the frontiers with the Sassanids, the reduction of income in the provinces of the Empire had a negative long-term impact. The first negative wave of the reduction was felt at a local level by officials who found themselves unable to continue the development of local infrastructure due to insufficient funds. Hence buildings built from the fourth century onward can be characterized as modest since they were funded from central and not local budgets. The second echo of the reduction of local funds determined a shift in the interest of provincial elite “from local politics to imperial bureaucracies where the money was.” Another aspect Heather brings into discussion is the nature of the tribes living on the Empire’s northern border. He argues that the status of the tribes in question had altered since the first century due to the fact that the Germanic tribes had acquired a considerable amount of material wealth thanks to their contact with the Roman Empire. Moreover, he notices that the accumulation of wealth simultaneously determined – paradoxically enough – the disappearance of wealth, and that this had led to the creation of a true ruling class in the case of the tribes. This apparent paradox can be explained if one takes one particular aspect into consideration, i.e. The impact of self-interest in the act of leadership irrespective of the latter’s nature. In this sense, the fact that the tribes’ wealth had increased also meant two things. Firstly, the ruling class was now capable of controlling far larger groupings compared to previous centuries, and secondly, the Germanic tribes had moved from being a mere disruptive element, to being formidable opponents of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, this is not the only threat to the Roman Empire that Heather identifies. Heather argues that the pressure exerted by people living far away from the Empire propagated and generated a domino effect. He links the Gothic invasion of 376 to Hunnish movements around the Black Sea. Similarly, he connects the invasions across the Rhine at the beginning of the fifth century to Hunnish invasions in present-day Germany. This way, he is able to make a connection between the fall of the Western Empire and the Huns. This connection also determines Heather to conclude that propagated external pressure could have brought the Western Empire down at any point in history due to the fact that barbarian tribes were more powerful at that point than in any previous era. While the Western part of the Empire was disintegrating, the Eastern part still ruled over Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Greece. The main force linking them together was trade seconded by an authoritarian imperial rule headquartered at Constantinople. The emperors regarded themselves as the rightful heirs of the authoritarian rule that was initiated by Caesar. In this sense, they considered themselves to be the only legitimate rulers of the Roman Empire. Constantinople remained a very prosperous city mainly due to trade which did not cease once the Western part fell. The population of Constantinople was very heterogeneous but was very united by a common Roman citizenship and religious belief. Greek became more and more spoken as Latin started to decline and became used solely on official occasions. Constantinople was a profoundly Christian city, adorned with numerous churches, convents and monasteries. The fall of Rome was a major event in the history of mankind, one that shook the unity of the world and forever changed world order. However in an important sense, Rome never did fall: “Its methods of agriculture, its patterns of trade, its cities and ports, its buildings and infrastructure, its modes of administration, its names for objects and places, its laws, its elites – to varying degrees in various place all of these things lived on, for longer and shorter periods, making the path forward an irregular transition rather than a catastrophic revolution.” (Murphy: 190).
IV. The American Empire, New and Old
Before the American Revolution, the colonial elite saw itself as the embodiment of the Roman republican ideal, and rejected the tyranny of the Roman monarchy before the republican period which they claimed to have been revived by Britain. They began to pursue the American dream with the image of the Roman republic in front of them, and their minds set on the ideals of the republic: the idea and check and balances, Roman virtue and the Roman concept of citizenship and duty. In the nineteenth century, a different notion of Rome was developing. People started to worry about what would happen if America became too powerful. This fear is illustrated for instance, by Thomas Cole’s series of paintings executed towards the middle of the nineteenth century which depicted an idyllic state of nature, followed by a glorious imperial present, and finally a civilization in ruins destroyed under the weight of its own greatness, very much like the case of Rome. Americans do not consider their country an empire. Presidents have disclaimed the intention of building an empire although their mandates might have indicated the opposite. In fact, the imperial intent was denied even by American’s first imperial President, William McKinley after going to war in 1898 for Caribbean and Pacific possessions: “No imperial designs lurk in the American mind. They are alien to American sentiment, thought, and purpose. Our priceless principles undergo no change under a tropical sun. They go with the flag.” (President McKinley cited in Eland: 1). In fact, this type of rhetoric resembles that of President Bush who claimed during his presidential campaign, that “America has never been an empire” (G.W. Bush cited in Eland: 1). Moreover, when referring to the military occupation of Iraq, Bush replied: “Our country does not seek the expansion of territory” but rather “to enlarge the realm of liberty” (Ibid.).
Despite the fact that the traditional conservatives oppose the idea of empire and argue that the imperial quest undermines the republic, the large part of conservatives agrees with an expansive and militaristic foreign policy. Neoconservatives also label American foreign policy as suitable because their main ideals are democracy and freer markets throughout the globe, even if freeing these markets implies military operations. Strangely enough, the vision of military intervention is also shared by socialists but with the difference that their options leans towards an interventionist foreign policy hidden under a sheer veil. In this sense, it is very interesting to analyze the main imperialist theories i.e. liberal, social-democratic, Leninist and super-imperialist (classification by Foster: 2003). The liberal theory argues that policies are the results of elected politicians, in this case, the Bush Administration, or political movements. Also, it claims that imperial policies are both hostile and dangerous to the true American values. This is the position adopted by a number of U.S. Democratic Party members who support the idea that U.S. imperialism is the result of a poor choice of officials which cannot be fixed unless others are elected. When explaining the origins of imperialistic policies, the social-democratic theory turns to a combination of military and industry which exert excessive influence. In this sense, they denounce a hidden cooperation between the arms industry and military and political bureaucracies. This complex alliance might also include the oil industry as well as finance, and its aim is, of course to benefit from the war. The Leninist theory argues that the predominant business sectors in American economy are responsible for the propagation of imperialistic policies because the latter manipulates exports. Because it is based upon a Marxist point-of-view, this theory asserts that business controls the government and that military intervention is merely an extension of international economic competition. Their solution is a drastic shift in national economy. The theory of super-imperialism as it has been called states, similarly to the Leninist one, that the origin of the imperialistic policy can be found in the same business-government equation, but that instead of international competition, today’s world witnesses international cooperation among developed countries. In this sense, the conflict that they identify is not between imperialist powers, but between the global power i.e. most developed countries and the “periphery” (Foster: 2003) i.e. The developing or undeveloped nations. For the Founding Fathers, Rome was not a mere moral example, but a practical one. They had managed to overthrow the British Empire and now needed a political model which they found in Ancient pre-imperial Rome. Rome provided them not only with a republic political model, but also with the idea of “checks and balances’, or more precisely with a historical instance of such a function that aimed at preserving the form of government. In the case of Rome, the functions of the republican government were performed by two consuls who shared executive power over a mandate of one year. There was also the Senate whose members were highborn and whose mandates were valid for life. Nonetheless, there were also the people who could vote on certain matters regarding the Roman state. Roman precedents were invoked in drafting the Constitution, and regarded as great values to be incorporated into the new Constitution. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus was a Roman hero of the mid-fifth century B.C. who “formed a small plot of land across the Tiber from Rome” (Murphy: 33). He came to the city’s aid when a neighboring tribe attacked Rome. In two days he managed to form his line of battle and to lead the armies with such impetuosity that the Romans obtained a resounding victory. After his success, he modestly returned to his plantation and resumed his life as a simple Roman peasant. To a great extent, George Washington was the embodiment of the American Roman ideal, and American’s Cincinnatus (Murphy: 37). He embraced public virtue and enriched it with the “Rules of Civility” which he wrote in his own hand sometime before the age of 16. After the Revolution, Washington returned to Mount Vernon and was hailed as America’s Cincinnatus. The comparison between modern America and classical Rome must begin from their most important common feature, exceptionalism. This feature acts as both a blessing and an affliction. American exceptionalism holds that the United States differs from other developed nations because of its historical evolution, distinctive political life and national credo. Arguments are in most cases, abstract and greatly influenced by the historical period and political context they arise in. As far as Rome’s exceptionalism, it is important to mention that it was sustained through the virtues of the republic and its selfless leaders and warriors. In the case of America, as Cullen Murphy states, that role was played by George Washington. Both Romans and Americans regard themselves as the chosen ones. This sense of exceptionalism determines another common feature that the two powers share i.e. A certain ignorance of the outside world. In the case of Rome, this ignorance was manifested towards its neighbors, and in time, it came to be extremely costly since it was precisely their underrated neighboring tribes that attacked and ultimately managed to destroy Rome. Similarly, Americans have the tendency to be rather ignorant of other cultures and peoples. This ignorance of course, is not always synonymous to dismissal or lack of appreciation as Murphy suggests, but rather a sense of superiority which gives birth to a severely opaque perspective on the world and its diversity. The approach of the educated members of society as far as the duty to serve in the military represents another common trait between Rome and America. As Murphy points out (Murphy: 72), in post-9/11 America members of the educated elite no longer feel it is their duty to serve in the military. His argument is supported by statistics which confirm that 450 of the 750 Princeton class of 1956 served, whereas only 8 of the total number of 2004 graduates did. Similarly to the Roman Empire that enrolled barbarian mercenaries in its army because of the lack of soldiers, America has started to contract out security functions to private companies (Ibid.). He also identifies one of the most stringent problems encountered by American forces deployed in foreign countries such as Iraq, i.e. The contractors sent on behalf of America have no clue about the people they are dealing with. In fact, military power is another aspect that needs consideration. Similarly to Rome, America is unable to sustain its enormous military, and is thus forced to appeal to contractors just like Rome turned to barbarians, with the “Iraq was being the most privatized major conflict since the Renaissance.” (Murphy: 63). It is important to discuss a few other aspects related to this issue. Massive privatization has brought about its negative consequences such as corruption, the loss of faith in government as well as the degradation of civil society: “Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities – and between public and private resources” (Murphy: 64). Consequently, this led to increasing problems in steering the central government. Similarly to the case of Rome, “America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities once thought to be public tasks.” (Murphy: 69) the result of this intense process of privatization is not only widespread corruption but also the loss of the “management capacity” (Ibid.) of the government which determines reduced efficiency and weak control.
An economic parallel would also reveal similarities between American and the Roman Empire. The Empire was extremely wealthy and productive but also consumed impressive percentages of its revenue especially in the form of military expenditure. With an army of over a million men scattered across an Empire encompassing at its peak, territories stretching from Britain and Germany to North Africa and the Persian Gulf, the Roman Army along with the infrastructure – more precisely roads and aqueducts – virtually drained Roman economy. Murphy argues that from the point-of-view of their economies, Rome and America are quite different because the Roman Empire was always threatened by famine whereas America has what he refers to as a “robust economy” (Murphy: 92). One of the strongest parallels that can be drawn between the United States and the Roman Empire is related to their common vision according to which their capitals, and hence governments, are the centers of each of their worlds. First, Romans regarded Rome as the center of the world, hence the saying “All roads lead to Rome.” In a strikingly similar manner, Americans see Washington D.C. As the center of America and the world, a place where the small political elite lives and operates. This perception of Washington, as Murphy notes, “is a faulty premise” (Murphy: 124) which “leads to an exaggerated sense of its importance in the eyes of others, and of its ability to act alone.” (Ibid) Evidence supporting this assumption is the fact that during President John F. Kennedy’s time, “only 29 people held the coveted title of ‘assistant’, ‘deputy assistant’, or ‘special assistant’ to the President; by the time Bill Clinton left office, there were 141 such people,” incontestable proof of the self-imposed prestige and mirage of Washington. At a closer look, the number of similarities between America and Rome make the parallel between the two even more striking. They are comparable both in physical size and in global power as “Rome and America are the most powerful actors in their worlds, by many orders of magnitude.” (Murphy: 143) Their power is not solely military, but expanded as to encompass language, culture, commerce, technology and ideas under the umbrella of globalization whose engine has been the United States. Very few expressions of globalization are as visible, widely-spread and far reaching as the world proliferation of consumer brands, the rise of symbols and the simultaneous broadcasting of events thanks to satellite television. Some of the most well-known symbols that are now familiar to billions worldwide are Coca Cola, MTV, Madonna and McDonald’s, to name just a few. And yes, these are all American. Furthermore, both Roman and American societies are open to immigration which largely contributed to their foundation and development. Also, both societies are keen on grand feats of engineering: “Whenever I see the space shuttle, standing upright and inching slowly on its crawler toward the launching pad, I think back to the Rome of Hadrian’s day, and the gargantuan status of the Sun-God, as tall as the shuttle, being dragged into place by 24 elephants” (Murphy: 102). Perhaps the most popular and controversial of the debates about globalization has to do with the rise of a global culture. The idea goes back to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the “global village” (McLuhan 1964, McLuhan & Fiore 1967 in Guillen: 21), later picked up by some influential marketing researchers who argued that the world was becoming increasingly populated by cosmopolitan consumers (Levitt 1983 in Guillen: 21). Sociologist Leslie Sklair (Sklair 1991, pp. 75-81 in Guillen: 21) writes that a “culture ideology of consumerism” – driven by symbols, images, and the aesthetic of the lifestyle and the self-image-has spread throughout the world and is having some momentous effects, including the standardization of tastes and desires, and even the fall of the Soviet order.
When talking about globalization and imperialistic America, the issue of the cultural empire arises. Culture is like a fluid. The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines it as “the total pattern of human behavior and its products embodied in speech, action, and artifacts and dependent upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” Knowledge encompasses all of the above, but also more vibrant components such as the political and legal system, social customs and history. Cultural differences are the result of these vibrant components which shape identities; thus a threat to culture becomes a threat to identity. One cannot overlook the influence that American culture has had on the world. This particular issue can be approached in two different ways. Firstly, as I have previously stated, the widespread influence of American cultural icons can be explained through the phenomenon of globalization. Nonetheless, culture is a vehicle for the circulation of values and ideals hence adopting an items belonging to a certain culture means more than merely using them, it means making them your own, and at the same time, it involves these particular items becoming a part of your own cultural identity. In this sense, I believe it is important to understand that cultural imperialism is as strong nowadays as political or economic imperialism as culture is the vehicle for all values. The concept of cultural imperialism begins with the Roman Empire. Upon their conquest of the Etruscan culture, the latter’s language and cultural determiners were annihilated and replaced with Latin and Roman cultural identifiers. Another instance of culture imperialism was manifested during the exploration of America when the explorers – England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands – imposed the culture of their native country in the new colonies. Cultural imperialism is a very comprehensive issue. It encompasses not only consumer goods and practices, but also principles that govern each people and thus each culture. American cultural imperialism relies on two such principles i.e. freedom and democracy. These two ideals can be found in any embodiment of American culture. The degree to which it is apparent varies, of course according to the target audience and other such factors. American culture is extremely powerful thanks to these two principles. In fact, it has begun to overtake other cultures whose principles have either been less powerful or less compelling. Modern cultural imperialism has benefited from the help of its number one ally, an ally that was not around to help ancient cultures such as the Roman. I am of course referring to the Internet. Globalization alters our perception of culture because culture was, for a long period of time, directly related to the idea of a fixed community or geographical region. This perception has changed drastically due to the complex connections that have been established thanks to the development of the means of communication whose king is, without a doubt, the Internet. Nevertheless, a global culture – which would incorporate the entire world population and would replace the diversity of cultural systems with a sole set of practices and symbols – has not appeared yet. However a proper comparison between Rome and America implies making a few considerations as to the dissimilarities between the two superpowers. In fact, these differences are equally striking. The first that comes to mind is directly related to the young age of America compared to the Roman Empire which lasted more than a thousand years whereas the United States is not even three centuries old. Also, one must consider that America has developed over several crucial periods in human history such as the Industrial or the Informational age, to name only two. In addition, America relies on its middle class that was virtually inexistent within the Roman Empire. Rome knew only two social classes i.e. The plebian – the people, the mass which lived on the edge of famine, and the patrician – the rulers, the upper class who lived in extreme luxury as opposed to the poverty of the people. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Rome was never a democratic society but one that valued inherited wealth and hierarchy, a class-conscious society in which the basis of the upper classes – the senatorial and the equestrian – was either political or economic. By contrast, in America the self-made man has always been valorized as the core of social values. The differences are even deeper at the level of the individual “As Romans were proud, arrogant, principled, cruel, and vulgar; Americans are idealistic, friendly, heedless, aggressive, and sentimental (but yes, often vulgar, too)” (Murphy: 92). Roman leaders used propaganda in order to justify themselves and their desire to dominate other peoples. To this aim, they developed an entire propaganda machine direct at the people; propaganda consisted of inscriptions, literature, art, and especially public rhetoric and ceremonial. The most constant theme within the propagandistic machine was that Rome was a symbol of peace, good government and the rule of law. By contrast, the peoples that Rome confronted were characterized as highly dangerous, barbaric and lawless (Faulkner: Barbarians). The best example of this propagandistic technique is a small excerpt from Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars that took place in mid-first century B.C.: “The various tribes regard it as their greatest glory to lay waste as much as possible of the land around them and to keep it uninhabited. They hold it a proof of a people’s valor to drive their neighbors from their homes, so that no-one dare settle near them. No discredit attaches to plundering raids outside tribal frontiers. The Germans say that they serve to keep young men in training and prevent them from getting lazy” (Caesar cited in Faulkner: Barbarians). The leadership cult played an important part in propaganda. The ruler was depicted everywhere so that Roman citizens would constantly be aware of this presence. In fact, the cult, whose embodiment was the emperor, centered on the idea that the ruler was to be worshipped alongside Jupiter. In provincial towns, the emperor was worshipped in sanctuaries just like Roman gods. Money was a tool of propaganda but in a different manner than it is today. The image of the emperor had to reach all of the corners of the vast empire, so his face was stamped on every coin. The combination of politics and religion has always been the strongest. Even during the era of the Roman Empire, a bond was forged between the emperor and the church. Roman emperors were presented “as agents of God on Earth” (Faulkner: The Crusades). Their power was divine, and so was their determination to crush paganism and heresy, and to remain the number one defender of Christianity. This relationship between God and the emperor is obvious if one looks at the coins, frescos, mosaics and even the jewelry of the time on which the face of the emperor is depicted alongside symbols of the Church, most commonly the cross. In exchange for imperial benevolence, the bishops preached loyalty to the emperor (Ibid). Constantine seized control of the Church through the Council of Nicaea whose purpose was to regularize Christianity so that it would be compatible with imperial government. Indeed, the emperor ceased to be considered a god and became godsend, a human form representation of the divinity. The diversity of American society – from the cultural point-of-view – ensures that everyone can live comfortably irrespective of their religious choice. Indeed, religion is a private matter. Nonetheless, in politics things change because the old concept of the American political system is based upon the ideals of unity; thus, religion is not an acceptable principle for political division. In the United States government and religion do not share an official bond. Aside from the connection with religion, American politics also relies on emotional appeal. In fact, there is a strong connection between religion and the use of the emotional appeal in political rhetoric, but also an underlying moral evaluation of events which in the end, is also religious since it utilizes religious criteria. The emotional appeal technique is the most effective as far persuading the audience as it determines the audience to relate emotionally and not logically or ethically to the message in question. In the case of the war in Iraq, it is simply easier to generate an emotional response than one based on critical and rational thinking which in turn, requires strong arguments from the person or people making the claim, in this case, the Administration. The audience generates a quicker and much stronger reaction to the emotional appeal since the basis of this approach is to instill a sense of fear, which in turn generates a strong emotional response. The emotional appeal can also be based upon presenting a unilateral and rather simplistic version of an event or tragedy, such as 9/11. In this case for instance, by invoking the loss of human life, feelings of rage are generated which replace the soundness of solid argumentation. America’s imperialism must be discussed from the perspective of its foreign policy. This analysis can provide answers as to the United States’ interest in ensuring global domination by establishing areas of influence from Colombia to Iraq. The attacks on September 11 launched the “war on terror” which was followed by the war in Afghanistan and the American invasion of Iraq. This allowed the United States to establish temporary basis in Central Asian countries formerly part of the Soviet Union, and to have military bases in Romania and Bulgaria – countries that are part of the East European Bloc. The U.S. also sent forces to suppress insurrections in Yemen, Georgia and the Philippines which has generated numerous allegations that the U.S. was not interested in helping local governments deal with insurgencies, but to gain strategic influence in the area (Eland: 13). In a similar manner, the United States Department of Defense funded the training of Azeri military forces and the acquisition of U.S. arms which later turned into an acknowledgment that the help provided to Azerbaijan was in fact an attempt to secure access to Caspian Sea Oil (Ibid.). America’s active participation in the war against Serbia in 1999, as well as the two wars waged against Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan have largely contributed to the enlargement of United States’ sphere of influence. Moreover, the U.S., hidden under the social plague of “narcoterrorism” (Ibid.) has sent anti-drug funds to Colombia. The war in Iraq was launched as a response to alleged accusation that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. No weapons were ever located. The Iraqi war is relevant to this paper from two points-of-view: first of all, it is an example of American ignorance as to the political culture of other nations. The democratization of Iraq is both costly and inefficient because America cannot force democracy upon a nation and a people who do not desire it. From this point-of-view, the mission that G.W. Bush has taken on is highly unrealistic. Secondly, it illustrates the imperialistic endeavor America has engaged in which has only worsened international relations from the point-of-view of the United States that no longer benefits from international support. Furthermore, the Iraqi intervention has only increased the level of hatred for Americans with populations of the Middle East being without a doubt, the center of this hatred. One of the major claims that supporters of the occupation have formulated is that the U.S. troops are contributing to the creation of a stable and democratic Iraq (Preble: 45). Moreover, they have argued that governments in neighboring countries could follow in the path of Iraq and adopt peaceful democratic regimes. This is however easily contradicted by a few historical and social considerations. Ethnic and religious cleavages prevent such a scenario from ever becoming reality. Since its creation, Iraq has been a nation torn between immense social inequalities and religious differences. Iraq has no experience in liberal and pluralistic government hence America’s attempt to create and impose such a regime is likely to fail. It is extremely difficult to craft a regime that will also function when put into practice especially when it is imposed through military intervention. The process of democratization largely depends on historical developments and cannot be reduced to a matter of imposing the right institutions in Iraq. Democracy is based upon political freedom which can only be acquired by a state when the latter benefits from economic growth, a solid level of education and a coherent national identity (Preble: 49). Given the ethnic turmoil, low rate of education and the high percentage of Iraqi people living below the poverty line, it is obvious that the United States cannot simply change the political life of the country. The presence of American troops has not considerably changed the situation in Iraq where democracy has still not penetrated the collective conscience or the political system. In fact, American involvement in Iraq might actually suppress such political and social development. The violence has spread from Sunni to Shiite communities (Preble: 54) and from central Iraq to regions in the south and west (Ibid.). A study conducted in 2003 has shown that only 4 of the 16 military operations through which the United States aimed at changing a government resulted in the establishment of democracy (Pei, Minxin; Kasper, Sara in Preble: 46).
Military spending largely contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Army funding was extremely demanding from the financial point-of-view, and in time, this manifested itself as a drain on the government budget. Soon, there was no money for other vital needs such as providing public housing or the maintenance of infrastructure. In turn, this determined social and moral decay as Romans did not want to defend the Empire’s borders any longer. The government was forced to turn to foreign soldiers and even to the mob in order to ensure the safety of its boundary lines. Not only was the new army unreliable, but it was also extremely costly. The high cost of the military determined tax raises which in turn, raised the inflation rate. To conclude, the fall of Rome was inevitable as a vicious circle had been created. One of the conclusions regarding the fall of the Roman Empire is that although they possessed impressive skills as far as warfare, architecture and engineering, they lacked a science of economics. The principles of the market are universal and apply to all complex economies that rely on trade and manufacturing. It is now possible to say that any society fostering the same conditions and restrictions as the Roman one would fall into economic stagnation and decadence, and would probably have the same fate. Ancient Rome was destroyed under the gigantic weight of statism which grew and reached enormous proportions because Roman society lacked the principles of individualism. In this sense, one prediction is allowed as far as modern civilization. It will not find its demise as in the case of Rome because modern societies are based upon the principles of commercial vitality and individual freedom.
Some harsh critics of the current’s Administration foreign policy argue that the American foreign policy of the 21st century still reflects the same very American desire to dominate the world which is so often referred to as “American imperialism.” These voices are somewhat more radical, and argue that for the past two centuries, America has built its imperialistic foreign policy upon the basis of “racism, aggression, genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crimes and slavery” (Boyle: 11). This view provides the conclusion that the United States has succeeded in building a sign of authority comparable with that of Rome or Alexander in the sense that it has turned into “the Emperor of the world” mainly through claiming that those who resist its authority are “terrorists and criminals” (Ibid.). Some historians, political scientists and international lawyers have argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that America was the “only superpower” or “hyper power” of the world (Boyle: 173); this status implies that America is capable of launching an offensive attack upon any adversary. Their main argument is that the “national missile defense” program is in fact, a critical objective of the current administration.
Terrorist attacks against the United States have re-shaped American foreign policy. September 11, the anthrax attacks, bombings of Oklahoma City, World Trade Center in 1993, and of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 have determined a different list of priorities as far as American foreign policy. Nonetheless, there have been countless debates on whether or not the issue of terrorism should indeed be at the forefront of American public interest. The U.S. counterterrorism policy and organizational mechanism were built to counteract both state-sponsored and independent terrorist groups, and its main tool has been military intervention. I believe that the much talked about military interventions in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan were the product of American exceptionalism. In fact, I tend to think that American foreign policy in its entirety was built upon this very concept which holds that America has the duty to wage preemptive war and to promote democratization. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism should not be regarded as a negative feature of the American political thought. However one needs to go back to the definition that Alexis de Tocqueville provided in the nineteenth century i.e. The values that were crucial to America’s success as a democratic republic: liberty, individualism, laissez-faire, egalitarianism and populism, otherwise knows as “the American creed.”
The moral fabric of American society has deteriorated. The most obvious signs of this deterioration are corruption, the state of education, the rate of divorces and separations as well as an increase in the rate of criminality. Irrespective of religious belief, morality is an ethical issue which can shed light on a number of other aspects of the modern American society such as the links within communities, the sense of identity, the lack of integrity and civility in society, and even the state of the national economy. Without a doubt, governmental actions teamed up with legislation have had a negative impact on virtue over the past five or six decades. Some have argued that individuals have lost much of their moral fiber due to welfare and a weak accountability of their actions imposed by the state. Morality cannot exist without incentives for moral conduct; from this perspective, the state is responsible for revitalizing civil society and limiting governmental intervention.
A parallel between America and Rome also puts forward certain scenarios for consideration. There is the somewhat fatalistic view according to which America will follow into the footsteps of Rome and eventually fall. These voices invoke Cicero’s political discourse which was aimed at putting forth his own view on good government: “The budget should be balanced, public debt should be reduced, the treasury should be rebuilt, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall.” (Cicero in Reed: 1990) Rome did fall, but America does not have to. Nonetheless, America needs to cultivate a sense of appreciation for the rest of the world, and to end ignorance and intolerance by promoting a sense of mutual obligation which arises from the quality of being a citizen of the world, and not solely of America. America has a strong belief in progress and evolution which will materialize and will avoid stagnation that took over the Roman Empire so many centuries ago. “The genius of America may be that it has built ‘the fall of Rome’ into its very makeup: it is very consciously a constant work of progress, designed to accommodate and build on revolutionary change.” (Murphy: 185)
How Excessive Government Killed Rome. Cato Institute 14. 2 (Fall 1994).
Bellamy Foster, John and McChesney, Robert W. “The American Empire: Pax Americana or Pox Americana?” Monthly Review September 2004. http://www.monthlyreview.org/0904jbfrwm.htm
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