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America as a new Rome?

Guest Blogger

It’s an easy comparison – and one bandied about without much thought: the United States of today is a lot like the Roman Empire of antiquity. Only problem is, as Vaclav Smil shows in his new book, it’s a misleading even irrelevant analogy. In “Why America Is Not a New Rome,” Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba, delves into the meaning of empire, the real extent of Roman and American power and a variety of other social, economic and political aspects. His conclusion: “Superficial (albeit often clever) comparisons may make for provocative remarks on talk shows and intriguing essays or interesting books, but a systematic deconstruction of these recently fashionable preoccupations shows them to be wide of the mark.”

By Vaclav Smil

Comparisons of modern America and imperial Roman have been flippantly common during the past two decades, based overwhelmingly on selecting specific displays of universal human behavior and then parading Roman quotes and stories in contrast with relevant American situations.

But such an approach does not give us any special insights into Roman or American affairs. For a self-centered, secretive and dishonest behavior of capital elites we can look just as well at the Byzantine Empire or its Ottoman successors. Those endlessly highlighted similarities of the “imperial overstretch” tell us nothing specific either about the Roman or the American military power.

Individual armies and major powers projecting their might far beyond their borders found themselves overextended long before the Romans embarked on their conquests -– and ever since (think Mongols, Qing China, Napoleon, Hitler).

As far as corruption goes, we could draw very similar parallels with any number of modern or ancient states. Myopic views of the world were surely no Roman preserve and today they are not America’s prerogative. An anti-imperial European Union has borders no less porous than the supposedly imperial America or those that the Romans tried to maintain along the Rhine and Danube. And the complexity argument –- making decisions that create, rather than solve, many problems –- is about as universal a phenomenon as one can imagine and it is also applicable to just about every large-scale business decision or to every fundamental technical choice.

That is why I decided to take a critical look at the Roman-U.S. comparisons, examining it as if words and realities mattered –- and had to conclude that the most notable commonality between ancient Rome and modern America is the vastly exaggerated perception of their respective powers. In all other aspects my inquiry found two fundamentally different worlds.

America has never been an empire, it has never pursued an overtly imperial policy, and even its global hegemony is of a very peculiar kind, much less effective and much more fragile than commonly thought.

In technical terms, the Romans were curiously incurious, particularly in contrast with the Hellenistic world and China’s innovative Han dynasty –- while American inventiveness dominated the 20th century. Rome’s energy use was no different from Parthia’s, India’s or China’s -– while America consumes more than twice as much energy per capita as even Japan or the EU, and five times the global mean.

Could a Roman citizen conceive living in a society where every person is attended by an equivalent of 50 strong and continuously hard-working slaves? Could an average American imagine family life where average life expectancy would be only 20-25 years? Could a young American family contemplate with equanimity the prospect of life whose physical quality would be inferior to that in the most desperate countries of today’s sub-Saharan Africa? Negative answers, in every case, are all too obvious.

The conclusion is clear: comparisons of imperial Rome and modern America uncover some fascinating parallels derived from shared imperatives of human behavior and from recurrent modes of social dynamics but, above all, they illuminate two incomparable worlds.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 15, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: Ancient Rome, Roman Empire, america like roman empire, american power  
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Here's another difference: if you think of the Roman Empire as lasting from Augustus to Constantine the Great (the last really strong Emperor) it lasted about 350 years- a hundred or so more if you count the last few not-so-strong emperors. The United States has only existed for just over 200, and has been an empire for 65 (since WW 2). Does anyone really think the US period of world power will last 300 more years?

Posted by: lewyn | April 15, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

The Roman Empire fell after it became Christianized - the attention and energy was diverted away from the everyday world of the present to the emphasis on the afterlife and the innumerable petty theological disputes at the time.

America should well pay heed to this before giving relgion any more of a role in our government.

Posted by: hohandy1 | April 15, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Some of the differences- (such as energy use and expected lifespan) that you mention just seem incidental to me, while the similarities are far-reaching. We could also point out that the Romans drove chariots while the Americans used cars, that America has Judeo-Christian origins while the Romans worshipped idols until the end of their empire- but these points do not alter the basic premise.

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Posted by: itkonlyyou7 | April 15, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I realize that this is a blog and that many of Mr. Smil's ideas had to be truncated for .com attention spans. But any argument that starts with this statement is irredeemable:

"America has never been an empire, it has never pursued an overtly imperial policy,"

This is at best naive and at worst disingenuous propaganda. Even high school AP students can recite the long and tortured history of American Empire that began with the decimation of the native Americans, continued through colonialism in the Pacific, Cuba, and the Western Hemisphere, and reached its peak in the last three decades, when she waged neo-imperial wars in the Middle East and Central America while American economists led the effort to strip-mine the wealth of countries emerging from the collapse of Communism.

To say that our influence around the world is "fragile" may be true in 2010, after thirty years of free enterprise economics and small government Reaganism have destroyed the industrial base, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few, and caused a string of economic shocks that revealed that our "growth" existed on paper but not in the real world. All of which was compounded by Bush's foolish wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worst of all for our international influence has been the quick and utter destruction of the very human rights principles that could plausibly be used to defend the American Empire's exceptionalism.

If our influence is failing its because we are neither loved nor feared. People no longer love us because we've revealed ourselves as two-bit thugs who torture, deny the rule of law, and repeatedly ignore international norms and decision-making. People no longer fear us because our military, for all the trillions spent and debt incurred, has been thoroughly beaten in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of a decade now by peasants with budgets several orders of magnitude less than our own.

Whether the American Empire resembles Rome is up for debate; whether America is an empire in need of a rebirth is not.

Posted by: evenadog | April 15, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Even though the two worlds might be incomparable --- which could be said of almost any pair of ancient, historical or modern countries, there must still be lessons worthy to be learnt and are valid today. Otherwise, why study history at all? May be we should analyze what lessons we can learn from the fall of the Roman Empire of antiquity, and more interestingly why it could not be revived thereafter.

Posted by: davidcklo | April 15, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The Roman Empire fell after it became Christianized - the attention and energy was diverted away from the everyday world of the present to the emphasis on the afterlife and the innumerable petty theological disputes at the time.

America should well pay heed to this before giving relgion any more of a role in our government.

Posted by: hohandy1

Yes. The United States should be very careful about giving relgion too much role in our government. That relgion is always trying to take over everything....

Posted by: TheNathan | April 15, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Smil is not the first or the last person to write about this topic, but judging from his position as a professor of environmental studies, he may be the most focused on the energy implications. It's too bad, then, that (at least from the evidence of this column) his information about the ancient world is utterly faulty. If he investigated Roman Imperial use of water resources, for instance, more carefully, he would find that not only did they vastly exceed "Parthia's, India's, or China's," but that they also conveyed a quality of life much superior, not only to today's sub-Saharan Africa, but also to that in 19th century Europe. Next time, maybe he should collaborate with a professor of Classics if he wishes to write on such a speculative topic.

Posted by: bellabone | April 15, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Isn't the real question whether or not America today resembles the Roman REPUBLIC around 100-80 BC, rather than the empire that succeeded it?

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