It is often said that the United States resembles ancient Rome in more ways than one. America’s founding fathers, of course, actively modeled our great republican institutions on that of Rome, and our empire surely is as comparably rich and so extensive that our leaders, like their august predecessors at the Roman Forum, consider the whole of the known world their purview.
There are, however, many more similarities than merely that, and an examination of Rome’s history finds many uncomfortable parallels with our own. The Romans, for instance, threw out their own kings at the very outset of their republic and set up a system of governance that was quite advanced for its time. Like in Athens, the people of Rome would gather together in assemblies to pass legislation and elect various magistrates who would oversee the implementation of the laws, elect higher-ranking state officers, and give rulings in legal cases. Power, moreover, was split between different classes and offices, theoretically ensuring that no one sector of society could dominate the rest. Rome was, therefore, a democratic republic both in spirit and in law.
For most of Rome’s history as a republic, the constitution and its division of power and shared responsibility for governance worked reasonably well, most of the time. That’s because Rome at the time was still a very small society by today’s standards — a city-state that could count a few tens of thousands of individuals as citizens. This relatively small population allowed citizens to if not personally know one another, then to at least know of each other, their reputations and other features and commonalities that collectively made them a people to one another. As Romans, they were tied to together through family, clan and class into a tightly-knit civic body that could, in a pinch, offer up tremendous sacrifices for their beloved Rome.
Indeed, the stoicism and unstinting patriotism of those at the bottom who were asked to sacrifice for their country was, in turn, reflected in the deep sense of noblesse oblige that was present throughout much of the traditional Roman upper class. The people would suffer and serve the needs of the Roman state, but so, too, did their social betters and, most importantly, were seen to do so. There was, in essence, a shared sense of destiny that tied the citizen soldiers of Rome to the glory-seeking aristocrats who sought to lead them. While not exactly the same, they were nonetheless of a kind and all in it together.
From ethnic identity to civic identity
Such a system worked well for so long because the body politic was still small enough that the Romans’ numbers did not stop those crucial cultural ties that bind from keeping the system balanced and efficient. Take away those cultural linkages that made Romans see each other as members of a common enterprise, however, and decay quickly set in. Unfortunately, Rome’s very success and expansion began to undermine the very constitutional system that made the republic’s success possible.
First, expansion brought with it the incorporation of new lands and peoples that quickly made Rome’s city-state political system incredibly unwieldy. This was because the only way to hold down large territories for lengthy periods of time was not through brute force, but through a system of indirect rule that incorporated the elites of conquered, subject peoples into the very imperial system that had conquered them. Deserts, as Tacitus once said, the Romans could make, but the taxes and manpower that created them were not something Rome could produce at will.
The resulting solution of indirect rule was common in all ancient empires, of course, but in Republican Rome, local elites were often granted the same citizenship rights as the residents of Rome itself, effectively transforming Roman identity away from a tightly-bound ethnic identity that tied rich to poor together and toward a much looser civic identity premised on mutual inclusion and equal rights in the same political system. Importantly, however, full exercise of citizenship’s political rights required one to actually reside in Rome, which nicely neutralized any potential political threat expanding citizenship to subject peoples might have actually entailed.
This transformation of Roman citizenship away from a form of ethnic identity and into a form of civic identity proved immensely useful, and it is largely responsible for the relative lack of ethnic rebellions experienced by the empire. Indeed, it was only those subject peoples who were denied this identity by dint of their economic status, such as slaves, or those who chose to cling to their primordial identity, such as the Jews, who engaged in large-scale, identity-based rebellions against Roman rule. In contrast, all other rebellions were primarily civil wars that pitted different groups of Roman citizens against one another for political control of the Roman state.
So, the advantage of this type of open citizenship was clear – it could produce buy-in to the growing empire by those it conquered and, as a result, greatly increase the amount of territory and manpower Rome could efficiently command. Such was its power that even when the great Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded the Italian peninsula and occupied much of Southern Italy for years, most of Italy — conquered by Rome though it had been — remained stoutly loyal to Rome.
The problem with expansion
So, where was the problem in expansion? First, while more territories, manpower and wealth could be leveraged for Rome in its wars, the expansion of citizenship to non-ethnic Romans became much more problematic as Rome expanded beyond Italy. Nearby Latins and other Italians, for instance, were not so different from the Romans that including them as citizens was deeply divisive. This, however, was not so for the Greeks, Africans, Gauls, Germans and Egyptians who were conquered and, in many cases, also given citizenship. This meant that, for the first time, Roman culture and Roman politics were not necessarily one and the same.
Second, expansion also led to the great enrichment of the Roman upper class, for it was they who naturally captured the vast majority of its spoils. Huge amounts of precious jewels, gold, silver, slaves and other riches were brought back to Rome and put in the coffers of its wealthy citizens. True, your average Roman soldier got away with some loot, too, but given the cost of leaving behind the family farm or artisan enterprise to go campaigning for years on end, it is little wonder that war swiftly became a losing proposition — at least for the poor.
In fact, Rome’s vaunted citizen soldiers would often come back to find that inflation and the increase in size of slave-worked aristocratic estates made not just their war loot, but their old livelihood, too, economically worthless. Crushed by the spoils-fueled growth in the wealth of Rome’s super rich, this vital sector of Roman society — its propertied, smallholder middle class — withered and died, becoming in the process that dreaded of all urban cohorts of antiquity — the mob.
Rome, at least temporarily, did not suffer unduly from the death of its former middle class, as it swiftly converted from a system of citizen soldiering to a professional, standing army. No longer was service necessarily the guaranteed future of either the Roman poor or rich. Instead, a class of professional officers, long-term service troops and public bureaucrats and contractors tasked with maintaining the empire and paid out of the coffers of the republic and, importantly, out of the loot given out by successful generals, emerged as the true source of Roman military power. They were fearsome. Given time, they could defeat almost any enemy the ancient world could throw against them.
One should now be able to see how expansion crippled Rome’s Republican institutions. What had once been a tightly-bound society of ethnic kin allied with one another against the rest of the world turned into a loosely bound society of competing cultural identities tied together via imperial domination and money. Being Roman eventually meant being whatever wealth said it was, and shorn of the old ties that kept the rich and poor together out of a mutual sense of common destiny, they soon turned on one another.
Elections, as a consequence, became things to be bought and sold, while the mob became something to be stirred up with appeals to cash, imperial loot and resentment, not appeals to civic pride or public virtue. By the time Julius Caesar defied the Senate and led his army across the Rubicon and so on to Rome, the Roman Republic had long since rotted away from within. All that history at that point lacked was someone strong enough to do away with the old pretenses by knocking them down completely — something Julius’ heir, Octavian, known to history as the first real emperor of Rome, had no problem doing.
Why is this relevant today?
So, what are the parallels with our own history? For one, the enervating power of money in our politics has reached, if not yet surpassed, similar levels of corruption as that seen in Rome. In our system, the candidate with more money commonly wins over 90 percent of the time, while it can be empirically documented that even as the voices of the wealthy go unchallenged in the halls of power, the interests of the poor are heard not at all. This comes, moreover, at a time when skyrocketing inequality has reached levels last seen in the Gilded Age of the 19th century.
Second, our own citizen military in which nearly everyone once served is a long-gone vestige of the past. It has since been replaced by a professional force whose leadership has become something of a service caste within our wider democratic society. Mass conscription may have had many faults, but it was the draft — especially its threatened expansion to the middle class — that forced us out of Vietnam.
Like Rome’s citizen soldiers who could no longer shoulder the burden of an expanding empire, the constraints placed upon our own expansion by America’s citizen army had to be done away with, and it was — first by professional troops but now, increasingly, by contract mercenaries and inhuman drones mostly serviced and fielded by corporate contractors. Stripped of the blood price that must be paid for engaging in foreign adventures, it’s little wonder, then, that America’s citizens have grown increasingly bored by, and distant from our wars abroad.
Finally, American identity itself is something that is beginning to crack and mean many different things to many different people. Once universally acknowledged as being synonymous with being a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, it has since come to include a wide variety of ethnic identities and faith traditions far outside the orbit of traditional WASP culture. Being American, like being Roman, is no longer principally about being a member of a discernible people as opposed to paying homage, or more often lip service, to a civic idea — America today, Rome yesterday — that is larger than any given form of parochial cultural attachment.
Is America, like Rome, doomed? Will some enterprising general cross the Potomac, lay siege to the Capitol, and install himself in the White House in some repeat of Julius Caesar’s triumphant, if ultimately tragic, march on Rome? Is our own mob, crushed by economic inequality and distracted by reality television, ready to surrender democracy into the hands of an imperial state? One hopes not, but as Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s right-hand man, once famously quipped about the effects of the French Revolution, it may simply be too early to tell.