Forget The Comparisons Between The United States And Ancient Rome. The Differences Are More Telling.

Roman Legion



I love the comparisons historians draw between the United States and the Roman Empire. As the turn of the Millennium fades into the past the year-end brings knee jerk dramatic analyses of the last twelve months. Increasingly, and almost inevitably there is a comparison between the 230-year-old United States of America and the thousand-year-old Rome. Just like stand up comedians have to endure dick jokes and Jack Nicolson impressions, we are subject to these historical comparisons. In fact, before we begin the unraveling exactly when the actual Roman Republic/Country/State began know that just the age of Rome is a reason to reject comparison. Rome was considerably older than the United States. Agricultural settlements in the Palatine Hills of Italy would be where we find the first signs of national identity.  That was about 750 BC. From around 600 BC to 500 BC the flags were Etruscans, distant ancestors to the Romans. In 509 BC the last Etruscan King was overthrown and an early democratic republic emerged. If we count the Visigoth “sacking” of Rome in 410 AD, that could be one end point, effectively putting the entire Roman history at 900 years. Of course one could consider the fact that Rome bifurcated into the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453. Which would effectively put the History of Rome at just three centuries short of 2000 years.


You see, that’s problem with comparisons from 100,000 feet, they are too simple and the facts of the world are often so complicated that comparisons between say the United States and Rome are operose and futile pursuits. They’re fun for a few conversations over eggnog. However they lead to platitudes and grating sound bites.


Huge Difference Number One. The fact that Rome existed so much longer than the United States itself shows that it’s far too early to compare the two.


The differences between Rome and the United States are often more interesting; particularly when people who grew up in the comfortable American exceptionalism of post World War II Eisenhower America are reeling from changes to America that they only read about in books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. We look to anything to explain how this could happen. How did we come to constant warfare? How did we come to torture? How did we come to ignore the Bill of Rights? How did we come to having dogs sniff our packages at airports while we watch, intimidated by but accepting of the new police state?  Who are all these foreigners in our borders? What will happen to our country? We look to politics, we look to religion, we look to the skies we look anywhere we can to see how we came to this state. In particular, we come to look at the past as a guide to our future.


It’s interesting to note that the Roman story started out well enough, but it ended badly. Sure, legionnaires marching behind shields and spears, gleaming brass armor in the sun make for incredible film. The machinations of the ancient Roman Senate would certainly compare to the tortuous path to the White House lined with calumny and deceit. Rome was a Republic, with a Senate that was once comprised of scholars and lawmakers. By the time Rome was engaged in a bloody desperate civil war in 49 BC, a new kind of leadership emerged. Well, not new actually. Actually this leadership was quite old. Octavian later changed his name to Augustus and stabilized Rome again. Stabilized. That’s a powerful term. You see, he was now a dictator, and every Roman leader after him was an absolute monarch. This was not a small problem.


Huge Difference Number Two. Not only had Democracy died in Rome, it never revived. No one panegyrized the loss of democracy either except perhaps a few senators.


The first resurgence of dictatorship in Rome was hidden under a public relations coup called the First Triumvirate. It was a three way power sharing between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. It was a quid pro quo backroom deal that later had to be revealed to the Senate. Yes, the three dictators were lining their own pockets and guaranteeing themselves continued power and appointment. Crassus, the Roman that he was, and a successful field commander at that was going to invade Parthia to tame these Barbarians who commanded amazing cavalry forces and refused to submit to other sovereigns. Well, the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC was one of those aberrations. Yes, an outnumbered group of Parthian cavalry soldiers cut the Romans down and three Roman Legions were killed or captured and enslaved. Crassus’ head came back one a platter. The Triumvirate was now the Biumvirate. Once Crassus was gone it didn’t take long before Pompey and Caesar attacked each other.


Huge Difference Number Three. This civil war ended the Roman Republic and began the Roman Empire. So Rome’s great civil war destroyed a democracy and ended with absolute monarchy. The American Civil War strengthened a democracy.


Both the Roman Republic and the United States survived an invasion and an occupation.


The early Roman Republic’s great enemy was Carthage, the seafaring nation that had a hold on North Africa and trade in the Western Mediterranean. In the Second Punic War, Rome was invaded and occupied for about 13 years.  Hannibal led the Carthaginian Army through the Alps and delivered a series of defeats so deft that they still stand as examples of maneuver warfare in history books and military academies across the world: Ticinus, Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae. During this time, however, the Roman Republic did not fall. In fact the rest of the Roman Republic was faring well, expanding into Spain and Portugal, expanding into Egypt and into Thrace and Scythia and Parthia. Eventually Hannibal’s contract army grew tired and greedy and Hannibal ran out of Money.


In 1812, when the British invaded Washington and burned the capital and stayed for three years, the US still thrived out west and pretty much everywhere else. In time the British were driven out. But the British Empire was powerful enough to survive the setback. The Carthaginians were not so lucky. Their invasion of Rome exhausted them. They were destroyed, quite literally erased from history in the third Punic War.


Huge Difference Number Four. After the invasion of Rome, Carthage was destroyed. After the War of 1812, the US and its invader became staunch allies. The great grandchildren of those American colonials would return to Europe and shoulder to shoulder with our progenitors wipe clean the stain of fascism.


Both the Romans and the Americans had to deal with bands and tribes of indigenous peoples. The Americans ethnically cleansed its indigenous people, warred on them, purloined their lands, resettled people, and outlawed their language. The Romans were not always kind, and often deeply cruel. But they were practical. The Romans recruited the barbarian tribesmen it once fought and made them legionnaires. But 100 AD, one in three Romans under arms was an auxiliary, or a non- Roman trained to fight in a maniple under strict purview of a Centurion. As the Roman Empire matured it often found itself training people to fight like a Roman only to see it fight back. Arminius defeated a Roman Army at Teuterborg Forest after spending a lifetime as a Roman military commander. Arminius even achieved Roman citizenship. Rome could be seen as quite liberal in its immigration policies. Roman subjects in the Republic were mostly allowed to worship as they pleased and to speak their own languages. To most Germanic tribesmen, life as a Roman soldier was a better bet than life as a tribesmen from a refugee band out of Northern Europe. To Roman Senators in the Republic, no one cared whom the barbarians prayed to. If they paid taxes and fought for Rome, that’s all that mattered.


Huge Difference Number Five. By the end of the first century AD, about one in three people in Rome were slaves. So there is a huge difference here between the United States and the Roman Empire. The US ended slavery. The Romans increased the use of slaves as it expanded. 


Huge Difference Number Six. The later Roman Emperors were not only absolute monarchs, they were increasingly in thrall to either the Roman Catholic Church, or they themselves became strict absolutist theocrats. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Failure to comply resulted in death and torture. The United States still allows for most religious expression.


We could go on here indefinitely. The Spanish poet George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. So we have a lot to learn from the Roman Empire. But the difference between us should give us hope that we can still produce better results than they did.


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