Echoes of the Roman Empire

The more you read about the history and politics of Rome, the more you realize that America follows the Roman example far more closely than just architecture and Latin terminology; even the word “senate” roughly translates from Latin to “council of elders” — an apt description of the generation gap between those with political power and everyone else (though to both the Greeks and the Romans, this was not a bad thing; age signified experience after all).

Read some of the descriptions of Rome’s political system by historians like Adrian Goldsworthy and Richard Miles with today’s America in mind.

The Romans valued military service above all else. It was seen as both a noble obligation of citizenship and as a way to drum up glory and thus political support. Over time, Roman politicians began to stress their personal military service — or at least their support of the military — to get elected. Political factions increasingly supported military conquests as a way to get popular approval, distract the masses with the glory of triumph, or to prove they’ve got the chops to govern.

Ironically, this deification of the military — for which the U.S. is unique among established democracies — would contribute to Rome’s downfall, as one general or soldier after another would seize power against venal politicians by capitalizing on their popularity following a victory or distinguished war record (only to of course become venal politicians themselves).

Roman high office was notoriously and openly cliquish. Only the same handful of wealthy, intermarried families had a shot at power. The Romans believed that merit and achievement passed on from generation to generation, prompting politicians to emphasize the accomplishment or one past or distant relative or another (which was easy to do since they all intermarried and could thus point to -someone- to do the trick). This had the obvious effect of creating political dynasties that made it very hard for so called “new men” to enter into politics, or at least the highest offices. Eventually, when the republic and later the empire crumbled under the weight of incompetent and corrupt politicians, these new men — now emphasizing their nonpolitical nature and success in business or the military — capitalized on the public’s disgust with established politicians, only to become part of the problem in the end.

Politics in Rome was highly personal, given the aforementioned dominance of families. Politicians openly curried favor with certain families for support, and both sides expected something in return. For this reason, Rome did not have political parties per se; there was little in the way of established policy or consistently ideology, as politicians just went with whatever would advance their interests or those of their allies or clients. Alliances shifted constantly; everyone invoked public service and the need to serve the public, but it was an open secret that politics was just a means to an end of power, wealth, and glory. Again, none of this was unusual; the Romans openly tried to work within this system to their own ends.

During emergencies, most commonly war, the Romans suspended politics as usual and appointed a “temporary” solution in the form of the “dictatorship”, a Latin term the describes a single individual’s ability to take control — i.e. “dictate” — policy for the good of the republic. Though the office typically lasted just six months, the famous case of Julius Cesar, who was alleged to have sought permanent dictator status, shows the age-old problem of balancing liberty and security.

Even Roman culture mirrored our own: The Romans stressed the material wealth, prosperity, and relative freedom that came with becoming a Roman citizen. They advertised to citizens and foreigners alike the sophisticated baths, restaurants (possibly a Roman invention), and other amenities unique to Roman life. They even developed a sophisticated credit system, not unlike today’s credit cards, to allow average people to ostensibly benefit.

Comparing America to the Roman Republic and Empire is a cliche among political scientists — but clearly for good reason I think.

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