The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that the military might of the United States vastly overshadows anything else the world has to offer. Not only can the Americans clobber countries that have stood up to the Soviets and the Iranians, but they can do so with an almost trivial sacrifice in lives. American soldiers face more risk from friendly fire and accidents than they do from the enemy. In fact, during the 21st Century, America has probably lost more secretaries than soldiers to enemy action.
Barring alien invasion or a devastating plague that passes through fast-food beef patties, American hegemony will remain unbroken for the next generation or two. That's a given. There will obviously be small setbacks here and there, like Mogadishu or Lebanon, where a sudden upturn in the body count makes the US reconsider the wisdom of getting involved overseas, but these will be mere insults to national dignity rather than defeats that shake the foundations of the empire. Wherever America decides to project its power can be conquered.
Making comparisons of America to Rome have become trendy nowadays, almost cliche, definitely controversial. The similarities are eagerly listed and stubbornly denied by people who obviously don't know the first thing about ancient history. In fact, listening to these people has made me realize how little I know about Roman history, but now, after spending nearly three days of intense study, drinking and napping, I'm all set to properly pontificate in the debate.
I'd say that there seem to be seven major misconceptions that most syndicated columnists have about the Roman Empire:
One final nitpick. The syndicated columnists liken the US to the Roman Empire at its decadent peak, the Rome of Russell Crowe, when the better comparison is to Rome at the end of the Second Punic War.
After whipping the Carthaginians at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, the days when enemies like Hannibal would threaten the homeland and march to the gates of the city had finally ended. Carthage, the only expanding rival in the Mediterranean world, had been knocked out of the fight and shorn of its empire, but it was mercifully left alive as a nation. Substitute Russia for Carthage, and you should begin to see the similarities.
At the end of the Second Punic War, the Romans could proudly and plausibly deny imperial ambitions. Although they had beaten the other peoples of Italy over the course of several previous generations, the Romans had allowed them to retain self-government in exchange for military alliances that put Roman garrisons up and down the peninsula. (NATO?) The Romans hadn't even picked a fight with Carthage this time around. They had honorably gone to war to protect the tiny Greek city-state of Saguntum from the Carthaginian aggressors. The time when Carthage would be sacked by Roman legions without provocation, its people massacred or sold, its land plowed with salt, was still half a century in the future.
In short, President Bush is not Julius Caesar. He's barely even Cato the Censor.
If America is the New Rome, it might help to study a side-by-side timeline of Roman and American histories and get a feel for whether we are travelling down the same road. This will give us the opportunity to make several pointless and unfounded, yet totally irritating, predictions of what to expect in the next few centuries.
I have put hypothetical comparisons in parentheses. For example, if we calibrate our two timelines by placing the 2nd Punic War alongside of the Cold War, then the American equivalent of Caesar's assassination in 44 BC should take place in 2148. Also, I have parenthetically suggested what modern day occurrence might be the emotional equivalent of major Roman events, such as Carthage=Moscow. Since distinguishing Tiberius Drusus Claudius Nero from Drusus Nero Tiberius Claudius is as difficult as telling one George Bush from another, I've tried to match the main Roman patrician families with their equivalent American political dynasties -- left wing with left wing, right with right, military with military, etc.
We'll start both nations as calm, moderate republics of merchants and landlords, where men of means discuss and decide the fate of their nations, and slaves toil on the land:
|509 BCE||Roman Republic Established||(1683)|
|(416 BCE)||1776||American Republic established|
|(367-317 BCE)||1803-1853||The United States expands west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the Gulf of Mexico-- at the expense of Spain, France, Mexico, Britain and a mess of Indian tribes.|
|338 BCE||Dissolution of the Latin League||(1852)||(This is probably important. I saw it on a timeline somewhere.)|
|(329-325 BCE)||1861-65||American Civil War: the last internal challenge to the integrity of the United States|
|(300 BCE)||1890||Ghost Dance Uprising. Last war against the Native Americans of the West.|
|298-290 BCE||3rd Samnite War: "The Samnites were the aggressive, primitive Sabellian herdsmen of the central Apennines. They were the last major native opponents of the Romans in Italy."||(1892-1900)|
|(292 BCE)||1898||Spanish-American War: First overseas war of conquest by the USA.|
|280-275 BCE||War with Pyrrhus of Epirus over Tarantum: First Roman war against a non-Italian army.||(1910-1915)|
|(276-272 BCE)||1914-1918||First World War|
|264-242 BCE||First Punic War: First Roman victory over a world-class power, and first acquisition of overseas territories (Sicily, Sardinia)||(1928-1950)|
|(251-247 BCE)||1939-1945||Second World War: the US acquires permanent alliances/ protectorates in Japan and West Europe|
|(244-205 BCE)||1948-1987||Cold War|
|218-201 BCE||Second Punic War: Last invasion of Italy and last serious threat to Roman existence and independence.||(1974-1991)|
|(201 BCE)||1991||USSR breaks up|
|200-196 BCE||Second Macedonian War [n.1]||(1992-1996)|
|(191 BCE)||(This might be considered the equivalent of the Battle of Cannae 216 BCE. The last, darkest military disaster in the Roman heartland for a long time to come.)||2001||Islamist attacks on DC & NY.|
|(191 BCE)||2001||Operation |
|(189 BCE)||2003||Operation Iraqi Freedom: Iraq Conquered [n.1]|
|YOU ARE HERE|
|(187 BCE)||2005||Operation Righteous Retribution: Syria Conquered|
|(185 BCE)||2007||Operation Humongous Virility: Iran Conquered.|
|175-155 BCE||Relative peace in Spain, where Rome had occupied Carthage's former territories.||(2017-2037)||(Latin America fairly calm)|
|172-167 BCE||Third Freaking Macedonian War. The Romans are getting mighty sick of having to fight the Macs every few years, so Macedonia is directly annexed by Rome. The rest of Greece is reorganized into independent (sort of) client states.||(2020-2025)||(Third Iraqi War: The whole Mideast is reorganized. New states include Kurdistan and Farsistan. Lebanon, Yemen and Kuwait disappear. All oil producing regions are administered directly by the USA.)|
|154-133 BCE||Nasty, cruel wars in Spain||(2038-2060)||(Country by country, Latin America is taken over by the US)|
|151 BCE||A Roman general in Spain massacres surrendering tribesmen. In Rome there are unsuccessful attempts to set up special courts to stop war crimes like this.||(2041)||(American troops commit atrocities while fighting in Colombia. The perpetrators are almost punished.)|
|153 BCE||Cato the Censor: "Carthago delenda est."||2001||(Ann Coulter: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians.")|
|149-146 BCE||Third Punic War: Cathage utterly destroyed||(2043-2046)||(Tehran nuked)|
|(Although modern historians tend to shy away from passing moral judgements on the past, the destruction of Carthage is usually considered to be the point at which Rome went bad.)|
|146 BCE||Romans sack Corinth, dissolve the Achaean League, and take over Greece.||(2046)||(End of the European Community. Paris is nuked as punishment for blocking UN approval of the 2nd Iraq War 43 years earlier.)|
|133-121||Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempt to curb abuses by the Senate and redistribute land to the poor. T. was killed in a riot, and G. was killed fleeing enemies. Their killers were acquitted.||(2059-2071)||(These are sort of the John and Robert Kennedy of the Roman Republic. Wealthy, liberal, unsuccessful, beloved and assassinated.)|
|132 BCE||Concerning the killing of Tiberius Gracchus, Britannica says "Thus political murder and political martyrdom were introduced into Roman politics."||(2058)||(At this point, assassination and paramilitaries become commonplace in American politics.)|
|(ca. 93-91 BCE)||ca. 2099-2101, depending on whether you're one of those math pedants who believes that all centuries begin with xx01, or whether you're one of the unwashed masses.||End of the Twenty-First Century|
|90-89 BCE||Social War: Rome's Italian allies rise up, demand, and are eventually granted, Roman citizenship.||(2102-2103)||(The Brits, Canadians and Aussies are incorporated as constituent states of the USA. Heck, let's throw in Mexico while we're at it!)|
|88-82 BCE||1st Roman Civil War -- between Marius and Sulla||(2104-2110)||(Imagine that the two winning generals from the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, had gotten into a civil war with each other instead of just running for president at different times on different party tickets. A bonus similarity is that both Taylor and Marius had relatives by marriage who became leaders in future Civil Wars -- Jeff Davis [son-in-law] and Julius Caesar [wife's nephew])|
|82-78 BC||Dictatorship of Sulla.||(2110-2114)||(In 2110, after the Second American Civil War, the Republicans declare marshal law and execute or exile leading Democrats.)|
|60-48 BCE||First Triumvirate -- Pompey, Caesar and Crassus||(2132-2144)||(Ike Bush Dole, Kennedy Marshall Roosevelt and Rockefeller Gates form an unofficial cabal to run the republic.)|
|53-45 BCE||The 2nd Roman Civil War: Crassus is killed fighting the Parthians at Carrhae. Caesar beats Pompey at Pharsalus, and becomes dictator. A bright, glorious future stretches out before him.||(2139-2147)||(The Next American Civil War: After R. Gates and his whole army are lost in China, Roosevelt and Dole are left on their own to fight for sole supremacy. The Battle of Brasilia proves decisive.)|
|44 BCE||Julius Caesar assassinated||(2148)||(General Kennedy Marshall Roosevelt is assassinated by Senator Taft Adams (and others))|
|42 BCE||Yet Another Roman Civil War, the Third I Think: At the Battle of Phillippi, Marcus Antonius and Octavianus defeat Caesar's assassins. Along with Lepidus, they form the 2d Triumvirate.||(2150)||(Taft Adams is defeated by Kennedy Clinton Roosevelt and George Bush Clinton at the Battle of Damascus. They pick some other guy and form the Second Trilateral Commission to run things.)|
|31 BCE||Battle of Actium: Last fight of the Civil Wars. Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius are beaten by Octavianus||(2161)||(At the Battle of Singapore, Kennedy Clinton Roosevelt defeats the combined forces of George Bush Clinton and Indira Evita Thatcher, and assumes sole control over the Republic)|
|31 BCE-14 CE||Octavianus rules as Augustus, First Citizen of Rome, retaining a facade of republican institutions and tolerating public debate, but consolidating real power into his own hands.||(2161-2192)||(President Kennedy Clinton Roosevelt makes President-for-life an actual part of the US Constitution. [n.3])|
|14-37 CE||[Tiberius Claudius Nero ] Tiberius the Surly, stepson of Augustus, starts well enough, but eventually starts executing imaginary enemies left and right.||(2206-2229)||(Regime of William Bush Roosevelt, adopted stepson of KC Roosevelt)|
|ca. 30 CE||Jesus of Nazareth preaches, gets executed.||(ca. 2222)||(Lorenzo the Redeemer, a Brazilian New Age Shaman, teaches about an upcoming era of Joy and Judgement)|
|37-41 CE||[Caius Caesar Germanicus] Caligula the Mad, grand-nephew of Tiberius (assassinated)||(2229-2233)||(Regime of Jefferson Walker Bush-Roosevelt)|
|41-54 CE||[Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus] Claudius the Fool, uncle of Caligula (assassinated)||(2233-2246)||(Regime of Keanu Kennedy Bush-Roosevelt. Not all that bad as these things go.)|
|54-68 CE||[Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus] Nero the Nasty, stepson of Claudius (assassinated, sort of)||(2246-2260)||(Regime of J. Edgar Fonda Bush-Roosevelt|
|69 CE||Civil war in which Nero plus two imperial usurpers are killed, and a third founds a dynasty||(2261)||(very brief terms of two Presidents: George Armstrong Rumsfeld and Ashcroft McArthur)|
|(74 CE)||The Aeneid: the Next Generation.||ca. 2266||Star Trek, First Series|
|69-79 CE||Titus Flavius Vespasianus starts a dynasty that is not nearly as eccentric as the previous bunch.||(2261-2271)||(General Powell Colin Eisenhower emerges as victor in a series of military coups.)|
|79-81 CE||Titus Flavius Vespasianus||(2271-2273)||(President Powell Colin Eisenhower, Jr.)|
|81-96 CE||Domitian (assassinated)||(2273-2288)||(President Julius Nixon Eisenhower)|
|(Again, keeping in mind that modern historians try to avoid passing moral judgements on the people of the past, here begins what Edward Gibbon called Era of the Five Good Emperors, the Golden Age)|
|96-180 CE||Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius||(2288-2372)||(Your Bill Bradleys, your John McCains, your Harry Trumans, dull decent leaders)|
|180-192 CE||Commodus breaks Rome's lucky streak. (assassinated)||(2372-2384)||(Joaquin Phoenix)|
|(241 CE)||2419||Buck Rogers in the 25th Century|
|324 CE||Constantine makes Christianity the official religion of the Empire.||(2502)||(New Age Lorenzan Redemptionist replaces Christianity as the official religion of the USA. The calendar is reformed so that the week is shorter, Spring is longer, animals are considered to be morally superior to humans, forests and nature are considered sacred, what you do in your own home is nobody's business but you and God, but there's a special circle of Hell reserved for telemarketers. Also, this God doesn't need any money, thanks anyway; she'd like you to give it directly to the needy instead.) [n.2]|
|433-453 CE||Attila the Hun comes crashing down on the Empire||(2625-2645)||(Li Kuan of Rigel 7 attacks)|
|476 CE||The Western Roman Empire expired peacefully in its sleep today, with a pillow held over its face by Odoacer the Herul. It is survived by a brother, Byzantine, and a posthumous illegitimate son, Holy Roman.||(2668)||(The end of the world as we know it.)|
When in England at a fairly large conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush.
He answered by saying that, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return." -- widely circulated e-mail.
Sources: Post Cold War Era
Miscellaneous comparisons between America and Rome:
There are some interesting parallels between the 2nd Iraq War and the 2nd Macedonian War:
The major accomplishment of Augustus was to organize the Roman government in such a way as to make monarchy palatable to such diehard republicans as the Romans. He couldn't just declare himself king. That would be political suicide. Imagine the outcry -- even among capital-R Republicans -- if George W. Bush held a coronation with a crown and purple robe in the Lincoln Memorial.
No, if President Bush wants to become virtual king, he'd have to be more American about it. First lets assume that a major war on terror had pretty much gutted the opposition. Anyone accused of abetting terrorism disappears into Guantanamo without trial. Democrats still exist in Congress, but they're in the minority, and they're afraid of speaking too loudly or else they'll be branded as unpatriotic. So how do you turn this into an Empire?
Congratulations! You've achieved absolute power and left the Constitution largely intact.
"... animals are considered to be morally superior to humans ..."
This, of course, is true. What's the worst thing an animal has ever done to you? Now, what's the worst thing a person has ever done to you? Animals were here first, right? Even the Bible says that. So, explain again, why can we drive animals into extinction and not trouble our conscience over it?
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Last updated April 2003
Copyright © 2003 Matthew White