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Just like the Roman Empire - Well, not quite

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, April 5, 2004

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"Aren’t we just like the Roman Empire, headed for the same kind of fall?”

We hear this question sometimes when someone wants to make the point that the United States is doing something that will lead to its ultimate decline.

The comparison between Rome and America is an intriguing one.

For instance, I recently heard some people talk about going the way of Rome when they were worrying about the terrible consequences of “military expansionism.” Others said we were doing “just like Rome” by giving up “our traditional family values.” Oftentimes, the Roman Empire comparison is just a simple way to emphasize the speaker's negative feelings about a particular American condition or course of action.

But the comparison between Rome and America is an intriguing one. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill history professor Lloyd Kramer has been thinking about some of the parallels and discussed them at a church school class on a recent Sunday morning. Here are some of the similarities between Rome and America.

1. Both began as small republics without much influence. Then they expanded “to the sea,” by conquering or coercing the peoples who occupied the heartlands. Both continued that expansion beyond the seas. The Romans spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. The U.S. took over Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippines and parts of the Caribbean.

2. Both claimed important political traditions such as the rule of law and fair government. Both believe that they were providing a much better government to those they conquered.

3. Both established transnational trading systems. In the areas of the Roman imposed peace, they established road networks, a postal system, and commercial stability. Similarly, the U.S. has led the way in bringing about a global system of commerce and trade.

4. Both had long conflicts with major rivals, ending in triumph and unrivaled power. Roman won its long war with Carthage; the U.S. over Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R..

5. Both borrowed their basic culture from predecessors. Rome from Greece. The U.S. from Britain and Western Europe.

6. Both dominated the rest of the world with military superiority.

7. Both took advantage of advanced technology to improve the lives of their peoples.

8. Both attracted substantial numbers of immigrants from other parts of the world.

9. Rome often used local leaders to manage the local populations. The U.S. does the same.

10. Both are responsible for a “transnational language.” Latin in the case of Rome. English in the case of the U.S.

11. Both experienced a movement to centralize political power. This centralization has been accompanied by a decline in the politics of participation and an increase in the politics of the spectacle. Games and pleasure took the place of a civic life. A few elite families tended to dominate the national political life.

12. Both developed an increased reliance on a professional military, depending less and less upon the citizen soldier.

13. Finally, both experienced growing opposition at the boundaries. The resulting conflicts increased dependence on the military. The costs of military preparedness and defense strained the basic economic systems.

Kramer recognizes that there are some important differences between Rome and America, including:

1. The U.S. has relatively few colonies compared to Rome.

2. The U.S. has an expanding human rights agenda.

3. The U.S. has maintained a democratic form of government, unlike the Romans whose republic was transformed into rule by an emperor.

4. While Romans took pride in their empire, Americans generally reject the term as it applies to them.

With all of these similarities on the table, Professor Kramer asked us if we thought the American people still have control over how our country is evolving. Or, he continued, are we like Romans at the time of the end of their republic when events were out of control of the people?

I wondered about all this as I watched our military try to deal with armed revolts in Iraq. The imperial Romans would know what do. Brutally crush the rebellion and do whatever it takes to teach the Iraqis that resistance brings swift and terrible punishment--without mercy or “due process.”

Have we become so much like the Romans that we are prepared to teach such lessons?

I don’t think so.

Most Americans still do not have the “conqueror’s mentality” that is a prerequisite for crushing the prolonged resistance of an occupied people.

It is a big difference from the Romans, one that I hope will never change. It is a difference that our leaders should remember the next time they send Americans to liberate, conquer, or occupy another people’s country.

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which will return to the air later this year.

Note to my readers:
Lloyd Kramer and I talked about this topic recently on radio station WCHL, which has archived the audio program (Show 11) on the Web at[/i]

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