America really really REALLY isn’t the new Rome

[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Las Vegas Trevi Fountain
Las Vegas Trevi Fountain. Photo by *nathan

I’m run­ning out of emphasis. On Sunday the Independent ran a story US ‘mir­rors Roman Empire’ in Iraq war. It’ll be dis­ap­pear­ing behind a pay wall soon. Potentially this could be a really inter­est­ing story. The Romans made repeated attempts to con­quer the east and failed. For instance is the Coalition of the Willing run­ning into sim­ilar dif­fi­culties in the ter­rain? But the par­al­lel isn’t with the inva­sion of Mesopotamia.

America’s entan­gle­ment in Iraq bears a strik­ing resemb­lance to ancient Rome’s Punic wars, accord­ing to the author of a new book on the Roman Empire.

Simon Baker, who also pro­duced BBC2’s forth­com­ing series Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, on which his book is based, claims the decision by the greatest civil­isa­tion in the ancient world to attack its Mediterranean rival Carthage mir­rors America’s actions in the build-up to the second Gulf War.

He said yes­ter­day: “You have hawk­ish Roman neo-conservatives say­ing that Carthage was a men­ace to demo­cracy, ‘weapons inspect­ors’ being sent over, cooked-up dossiers exag­ger­at­ing the threat, and huge debate at home about the wis­dom of war.

The arrog­ance of power… has a strong res­on­ance with America today… And just as with America before the second Gulf War, there was a real argu­ment about the best way of extend­ing polit­ical control.”

Which Punic War? For the first and second wars Carthage was a potent enemy, and Rome could have lost badly. You can make a case for par­al­lels with the Third Punic War, but a major motiv­a­tion for this war was to des­troy an enemy which had come so close to des­troy­ing Rome. In Gulf War I, there really wasn’t con­cern that Saddam would occupy Washington.

There are sim­il­ar­it­ies that you can draw and hope­fully the book does it bet­ter, but the brief story in the Independent doesn’t do that. The “cooked-up dossiers exag­ger­at­ing the threat” don’t tell us any­thing about Rome, but they do com­ment on atti­tudes to con­tem­por­ary America. This is why a lot of America is the New Rome pieces put my teeth on edge. It’s a lazy way to dis­cuss polit­ics and hides behind often irrel­ev­ant facts. Is America imper­ial? Is mod­ern imper­i­al­ism com­par­able with ancient imper­i­al­ism? These kind of debates get lost. Draw a few con­nec­tions and America is an empire and as every­one knows empires are Bad.

You could ask if com­par­ing America to Rome doesn’t work then is there any mod­ern rel­ev­ance to Rome? Should we just not bother? Not neces­sar­ily. Superficial com­par­is­ons can be inter­est­ing if you’re open to explor­ing why they’re super­fi­cial. For instance are the neo-cons and Roman sen­at­ors hawk­ish in the same way? I don’t think so. Roman sen­at­ors needed money and prestige. War provided both. Prestige came with vic­tory, but there was also the tra­di­tion of loot­ing. Romans saw the provinces as things to bleed dry to provide for Rome and for them­selves. American hawk­ish­ness could be related to prestige, though many lead­ers of demo­cra­cies have Churchill com­plexes. On the other hand there is no wealth incent­ive. The War in Iraq is hugely expens­ive and is not mak­ing America rich. You could argue that this isn’t true, but the very fact you can dis­cuss whether prof­it­eer­ing is hap­pen­ing emphas­ises that opin­ions have changed. It also wouldn’t explain why so many Americans who are pay­ing for the war returned Bush to office. I’m hop­ing Simon Baker’s book is going to tackle this kind of ques­tion and the poor write-up in the Independent was due to lack of space.

Someone who has had the space to explore this and done a good job is the Conservative MP Boris Johnson. He had a two-part series called The Dream of Rome and an accom­pa­ny­ing book. I found his argu­ment per­sonal, but well-reasoned and oth­ers also enjoyed the pro­gramme des­pite, or maybe because, it was alloyed to a con­tem­por­ary polit­ical argu­ment. In his case he was com­par­ing the Roman Empire and the European Union and by seek­ing dif­fer­ence rather than sim­il­ar­ity he was able to do justice to both insti­tu­tions in their own terms.

Reading back that last sen­tence per­haps that’s the root of my dis­taste for many …new Rome com­par­is­ons. Concentrating purely on sim­il­ar­it­ies forces his­tor­ies into a mould which dim­ishes under­stand­ing of both peri­ods. Robert Harris’s com­par­ison between a pir­ate raid on Ostia and the World Trade Center attacks gives me unease, though I don’t ima­gine he’s being inten­tion­ally dis­respect­ful. In the same art­icle Mary Beard notes that the Roman past has always been rein­ven­ted since its fall to com­pare to con­tem­por­ary times, and seek­ing par­al­lels with the past even happened in ancient Rome. Plutarch was a mas­ter at this with his Parallel Lives, match­ing a prom­in­ent Roman with an illus­tri­ous Greek. I think his method may be a suit­able example. By acknow­ledging the dif­fer­ences the sim­il­ar­it­ies can become meaningful.

Personally I’m in a much bet­ter mood now I’ve worked that out, and it’s so much cheaper than a therapist.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

6 Responses

  1. Gav says:

    On the other hand if America is the new Rome, you’ll be need­ing a Roman name.”

    I typed in George W Bush expect­ing it to say Valerian. But it was Spartacus.

    No, I’m Spartacus.

  2. Spartacus” 😉 says:

    though many lead­ers of demo­cra­cies have Churchill complexes.”

    I think about this every time Dubya dreams up another scary policy. I won­der what sort of mad inspir­a­tion he draws from the bust of Churchill that he sup­posedly has in the Oval office.

    BTW: My name really ought to be “Kennethia” if we fol­low the Roman rules for nam­ing their girls. 😉

  3. Brian says:

    I’m Spartacus!

  4. phil says:

    I’m Brian.
    And so’s my wife

  5. Romanes eunt domus!” 😉

  6. Man of Roma says:

    This par­al­lel between ancient Rome and America is inter­est­ing. I’ll write a post on it, sooner or later.
    All the best from Rome