The United States of 2016 has a staggering amount of similarities with the ancient Roman Republic
The United States of America is going through a tumultuous period in its modern history. I would argue it’s a transitional period, and that the history of the great American Republic is analogous to another historical Republic: Ancient Rome.
While scholars talk about an “American Empire” and its inevitable decline, it seems that this comparison is not entirely grounded (yet). The best way to look at America in 2016 (in historic context) is to look at the era of the late Roman Republic, and that its decline and fall led to the rise of something far more nefarious.
The United States is often compared to Ancient Rome, and some of the comparisons are striking. Though, America is often compared in the lens of what we think of as the Roman Empire. We think of movies like Gladiator, with the grandeur and vanity of the emperors, holding their thumbs up or down in the Coliseum. What many are unaware of is that Rome was not always an “empire”, but was in fact originally a Republic.
The Founding Fathers are known to have modeled the American Republic after that of Rome. Roman legal and governmental practices were used. The upper branch of the US Congress is called the “Senate”, directly inspired from the old Roman Senate (in both theory and practice). In fact, the histories of the American and Roman Republics are analogous in important ways. Of course history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.
The founding of the Roman Republic is a hazy history, mainly because there are virtually no primary sources dating from the supposed period. The city of Rome is said to have been founded sometime around 700 BC. According to the later Roman histories, in the year 509 BC the people of Rome rose up in rebellion against an oppressive monarchy and established an aristocratic Republic.
The Roman Republic lasted for about 500 years, a system built on a heavy set of checks and balances to ensure no single man could obtain total power in the state. Of course, like all political systems, the theory sounds much better than the actual practice. The Roman Republic, while stressing the limits of personal power, was also a highly corrupt society in which Senators and other officials could easily bribe and be bribed in a revolving door that spun round and round until it eventually spun out of control.’
Cullen Murphy has written an interesting work titled Are We Rome? which details key similarities between the two Republics. One of the central similarities between Rome and America is the deep corruption which seems to infect most (if not all) aspects of life.
The Roman Republic’s corrupt political aristocrats were mainly the benefactor of Rome’s expansion. The elites in Rome gained the most by Rome’s expansionist wars, which developed into an economy driven mainly by slaves while the lower classes of Rome suffered. The Republic suffered from massive political strife for nearly one-hundred years, including several civil wars fought between populists and aristocrats.
The United States today has similar issues that the late Roman Republic had. The United States has an exceedingly corrupt political system, with offices and favors that are bought rather than earned. The United States has undergone years of military expansion abroad, becoming the dominant power in the world. While the United States has had massive economic booms, much of that boom benefited the upper classes while the lives of the middle and lower classes have stagnated.
If the 2016 election has shown us anything, is that the United States has a bubbling conflict between the political establishment and the populist elements of the country. While the American Republic sounds like a great ideal in theory, its application has become much more muddied.
The poor and middle classes have grown angry and feel pushed aside by the elites of the country, who have benefited the most from American expansion over the years. While Business interests get rich off of wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the average citizen has not benefited as much (if at all).
One of the main issues that the United States and the Roman Republic share is the ever widening division in the political arena. By the time Julius Caesar came to prominence in Rome, the political divide between populists and aristocrats was well established. There was no real middle ground in this time. Every Roman knew where they stood on an issue, and usually where they stood was based on class sympathies. The same seems to be coming true for America as well.
The political divide between populists and aristocrats in Rome grew so divisive that government effectively came to standstills at many periods. The populists and aristocrats despised each other so much that neither side would support any legislation the other did (even if both sides agreed in principle). Violence between the two factions was not uncommon either, in fact it was a rare sight in the late Roman Republic to see prominent political/social figures moving about the city without armed guards.
The Congress of the United States is a sad picture to paint. It has suffered from near dysfunction for years. A steep divide has developed between the establishment and populist elements of American society and government. The recent election cycle has revealed a massive distaste of the people with their political establishment, which is viewed as endemically corrupt and uninterested in the well-being of the citizenry. Whether left or right, there is a more clearly defined split emerging between the populists and modern-day aristocrats, and there are signs it could get ugly.
Due to Rome’s deep corruption and ever widening gap between rich and poor, there emerged several bloody conflicts between populists trying to gain more rights and the aristocrats trying to maintain their own power. Rome grew so unstable that the only periods of peace and relative stability it experienced in late Republican times was under military dictators with men like Sulla, Pompey, and the more well-known Julius Caesar. The slide into dictatorships is what of course led the Roman Republic to become the more famous Roman Empire.
America and Rome share similar social settings, as well. Cullen Murphy points out that Rome was a heavily insular capital, isolated from the broad issues of its people by an elitist culture more inwardly focused. Washington D.C. finds itself in a similar situation. Its political elites are mainly isolated from the concerns of the masses, and mainly focus on their own aggrandizement and personal interests. It has become an insular culture, much like Rome, divorced from the mood of its people.
The United States is also a land that depends to a large degree on foreigners and immigrants for its own stability. Rome was also a society that depended on large amounts of foreigners and provincials in order to fuel its expansionism. Rome became a magnet for the many, as America has become, however the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side.
America today finds large sectors of its economy dependent on immigrants and foreign laborers, and much like the “barbarian” immigrants of Ancient Rome, today’s elites treat them with the same level of opportunistic disdain. It must speak somewhat highly of societies where people flock in droves to become part of a nation that ultimately does not respect them.
As Cullen Murphy points out, Romans and Americans also share a similar outlook on foreigners and the world. Ancient Romans were very self-aggrandizing, and believed that only their law, culture and actions were important to the shaping of the world (their world). Americans share a similar belief system. Americans (like Romans) do not desire to understand the world from an outside perspective, and tend to view themselves as the only important force and viewpoint the world has to offer.
America has a Gladiator complex, like Rome. Americans love to be entertained, and mass entertainment is as American as apple pie and racism. America’s coliseums are in its sports arenas, TV shows and mass media that tells them the latest celebrity gossip. America has become too comfortable with passive distraction and senseless entertainment. Even its politics has become more about the horse race than actual policy, which favors the elites. The American Forum and Arena is intertwined into the everyday fabric of the nation, a moving circus to satisfy every need to distract the public away from societal ills.
In no way is the American Republic destined to follow the fate of Rome. History is never doomed to repeat itself, yet certain themes tend to play out time and again. Similar tracks are being followed by the United States that emulate that of the late Roman Republic. Of course, what happened to the collapse of the Roman Republic led to the rise of something far more dangerous. A corrupt and fractured Republic transformed into an empire run by all powerful emperors, who shaped and molded the state to their own personal whim.
The American state is not on the verge of collapse. Its governmental Republic, however, is in grave danger. We have seen the effects of endemic corruption and subversion of democratic ideals, and all it has done is create deep divides and presented troubling solutions. As strange as it sounds, part of the appeal to men like Donald Trump is their blanket promise to make things “great” again. In desperate times, when the deck seems to be stacked against you, some people turned to men with the most aggressive and simple solution.
The one crucial difference between the American Republic and the Roman Republic, is that Rome never had a written constitution. The Roman Republic based its laws and customs on a principle called “Mos Maiorum”, which means “tradition of the ancestors.” Rome simply followed its legal precedents based on what the founders of the early Republic did. The legal system of Rome was never meant to change, and instead it was governed simply on the invisible principle that what was good for Rome in the beginning would be good for Rome in perpetuity. America is very different in this one crucial way.
The American Republic does have a single founding legal document. The Constitution of the United States is the single founding principle of the state, and unlike Roman Mos Maiorum, the writers of the document wrote it with the intention of it being an evolving document. The American Constitution is built to change and give tools to the citizens to allow for this change. While the American aristocrats give the impression of the Constitution being a sacred document, without need of change, the fact of the matter is much different.
It is through the Constitution that a similar fate to the late Roman Republic can be avoided. If the people come together to amend the Constitution to remove the corruption of money from our political system, then perhaps we can save our Republic from those who seek to subvert it for their own gain.
The American Republic does not have to fall like Rome did, but in order to prevent this, a great historic tide must be overcome. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it did not fall in a day. America was also not built in a day, and it too will survive. The question now, is what will America look like in the future? Out of the ashes of Rome’s Republic rose an empire. What would rise from the ashes of the American Republic, if anything at all?