The stressful times through which the United States is passing stir in the minds of many the thought that America’s troubles are comparable to those of ancient Rome. Something, they surmise, about the transition from “pure” republic to “corrupt” empire is what caused the “decline and fall” of Rome, and the same thing is happening to America. But what about that? Did the United States, as has been said of Rome, in a fit of absentmindedness acquire an empire? And did it then begin almost instantly to decay morally and constitutionally so that only a collapse and breakup of the American “Empire” lies in our future?
Probably 99.9 percent of these ruminations go unpublished because they are informal and generally limited to private conversation or even to the head of the ruminator. But not all. Likely the most entertaining and almost certainly the most erudite systematization of these thoughts is the recently published Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy. In it, Murphy sets up the problem very clearly, starting with the fact that even those who have studied the United States most thoroughly are not able to agree on whether it is or is not an empire in spite of the fact that the fathers of the Constitution appear to have had Rome in mind when they created that document. He then puts forth what he thinks to be the most important similarities in governmental and economic tendencies, with reasons why he thinks those tendencies weakened the Roman state and may weaken the American. Then he notes several ways in which Rome and America differ, primarily in the social realm, and concludes with the mild opinion that just “being American” is the best way to avoid suffering a fall like Rome’s.
I should like to suggest, however, that in almost every way, the traditional approach of Americans to the similarity of Rome and the United States has been wrongheaded, and that Cullen’s approach, insofar as it partakes of that tradition, is wrongheaded also. The tradition seems to go like this: First, the United States is a big country and, because of its size, governing an area even greater than the Roman Empire at its largest, it qualifies as an empire, even though it retains a governmental form that looks superficially like that of a republic. Second, corruption – delineated in different ways according to the tastes of the observer – has obviously set in, and corruption is believed to be at least one defining criterion of imperial Rome. Furthermore, in acquiring its large land area, America, like Rome, acquired foreign peoples, and a single government of many peoples is an empire. Therefore, since size, corruption and multiplicity of peoples all equal empire, comparison of America with the Roman Empire must be valid.
However, these three similarities between Rome and America are in fact less important than meets the eye. Take size: Communications in antiquity were limited to the speed that a man could walk, or a ship could sail during the summer. Hence the Romans built roads trying to bind together their area of governance -- the imperium. Other Roman policies, such as the bestowal of citizenship, were followed for the same reason. Despite the considerable success of these policies, throughout their history the Romans felt a strong need to do whatever could emphasize the Romanness of Roman lands, and this was republican policy as well as imperial. In America, distance counts for little. Modern communications cut weeks to seconds and unite Florida and Alaska, culturally and politically, far more closely than Roman Egypt was ever united to Roman Britain. Mere size, then, cannot be the decisive test of modern empire. As for corruption, was there ever a polity that did not have problems with it in one or many forms? Multiplicity of peoples is a more complex problem, but both Romans and Americans have had it from the beginning. Each polity added to its population through both military annexation and peaceful assimilation – in America’s case the latter usually coming as immigration. With Rome, however, it isn’t possible to distinguish republican from imperial population acquisition, so multiplicity of peoples cannot define empire.
The point that most people seem to forget or ignore is that there was a real difference that the Romans themselves saw between Republican Rome, which added much territory and many peoples to the city’s governance, and Imperial Rome, which widened, streamlined and generally improved that governance and which presided over its eventual collapse: The former had no Emperor -- imperator, while the latter had one. This one man might be a good emperor, a bad one, or even an insane one, but his presence made a difference that cannot be overemphasized. He bore in his person the right, if sometimes not the ability, to make all decisions of policy and lawgiving. There is no such individual in the American government. No emperor, ergo no empire.
To realign our view of the Rome-America relationship according to what I think is a more useful perspective, we ought to return to the fathers of our Constitution and the opinion they held of the constitution of Rome. It was derived from the ideas of Polybius, a second-century B.C. Greek historian. Polybius approached Rome with sensitivities formed by Greek cyclicalism, an historical philosophy applied first to government in Aristotle’s Politics, though the constitutional divisions were earlier expressed in Plato’s Statesman. Briefly put, according to the Greek cyclicalist idea, monarchy is the original human form of government. As time passes, however, and as all systems tend to decay, monarchy turns into tyranny and the tyrant abuses the important men of his realm because he fears their power. Eventually the important men tire of this treatment, band together and overthrow the tyrant, establishing a timocracy, or government of the worthiest, and rule more fairly until they in turn become corrupted by power and become an oligarchy or rule of the few for their own benefit. This irks the people, so they overthrow the oligarchs and institute popular rule or democracy. However, the people are no more proof against corruption than kings or timocrats, so their government degenerates into mob rule, and to straighten out this disorder it’s necessary to return to the rule of one man, a king.
It seemed to Aristotle, and to his follower and elaborator Polybius, that because of this ineluctable sequence the best kind of constitution was not purely monarchical, timocratic, or democratic, but a mixed constitution that would combine the best elements of all three. This was what Polybius saw in Rome: The consulship, he said, represented the best parts of kingship, the Senate the best parts of timocracy, and the councils --concilia of the tribes, of the centuries, and of the common people as a whole – the best parts of democracy. For this reason he believed that Rome’s government, blessed by its perfect constitution, would prove stable and that the Roman Republic would survive the vicissitudes of time and politics, essentially forever – Roma aeterna. He was wrong.
The fathers of the American Constitution knew their Polybius. They thought the ancients were onto something with the mixed-constitution concept, and they were determined to fix what had made Polybius’s conclusions turn out to be incorrect. Instead of two consuls, who might act against each other in a crisis, they gave us one President. Instead of the plethora of lawmaking bodies -- three concilia and a Senate -- they gave us a bicameral body with one house to represent the states and the other the people and required every law to be passed by both houses and accepted by the President. Then they separated the judicial power that had belonged to the Roman Senate and created out of the whole cloth a judiciary that they thought would perfect the balance. It did not.
From the beginning the three branches have been marked by the tendencies that continue to darken their history today: The executive and judicial branches struggle to retain or add to their own power, the legislative – which the Constitution presented as the leading branch – acts like any mob, pusillanimous and vindictive by turns. The executive got off to the best start with George Washington, a man keenly aware of his responsibility to give the presidency appropriately republican traditions. The judicial branch, however, has sought from the outset to usurp powers from both the other branches. It has succeeded better over time against the legislative, which has always liked the idea of sharing the blame for policies that might prove unpopular. While this may sound like a government of monsters, it is undoubtedly what the Founding Fathers intended, based on their understanding of human nature. We call it “balance of power,” and it is meant to protect the people from their predatory government. The early national period, with its limited voting rights, official state churches, and “Virginia Dynasty” of presidents, etc. may be said to correspond to Polybius’s age of timocracy.
The Nullification Controversy and later and more definitively the War Between the States divorced the nation from its Declaration of Independence and from the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. The virtually dictatorial powers of martial law that Lincoln had exercised lapsed at the end of the war, though it may be observed that they were taken up by the Congress, now dressed in its vindictive plumage, and applied to Reconstruction. But even so stimulating and lucrative a policy for the central government as Reconstruction finally grew wearisome and was abandoned. It was replaced by a period, stretching right into the present, known on high school charts of American history as “The Rise of the Common Man.” The milestones along this road are familiar to many of us from those same high school history classes: “popular election of senators,” “initiative, referendum, and recall,” and topping it all off, “one ‘person’ one vote.” We have been spared thus far the “participatory democracy” that the hippies of 1970 wanted to impose on America by means of the telephone. However, the central government was given a taste of what “participatory democracy” might be like with the popular reaction that sank immigration “reform.” It didn’t like it. Still, the present Government of Confusion seems to approximate, in an American way, Polybius’s mob rule.
But how, if the difference between republic and empire is simply a difference between the supremacy of many and the supremacy of one, should we define the boundary of the transition of republic to empire? Can it be defined in such a manner as to fit both Rome and America? I think it can.
It is when the form of government, based on the influence of few or many that began by replacing monarchy, proves incapable of overcoming the problems that confront it and is forcefully replaced by a new monarchy, which can and will solve them. In the case of Rome, what led to the collapse of the republican state was the presence of two long-lasting challenges that the Republic just couldn’t overcome. If America makes the same transition from republic to empire, it will be for the same reason – one or more existential crises that the Republic is incapable of solving.
Both Roman crises were domestic in effect but in origin – to a large extent – foreign. The first, which began with the Second Punic War, 218 to 201 B.C., was agricultural. It started with the displacement of Roman farmers by Hannibal’s marauding army. This was complicated by the exploitation of grain-growing lands in the provinces of Sicily, and later Africa and Egypt, which unbalanced the grain market and made small-scale farming unprofitable. The second crisis was military but was derived from the farm problem. The decline of small farms in central Italy and beyond had pushed into the city a large underclass of unemployed but proud and able-bodied men who could be taken into the armies raised for the great independent commands. These armies were led by Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, all at senatorial behest, against enemies foreign and domestic.
War for Rome had always been an affair of militias. Every Roman had supplied his own military equipment and had been assigned duties accordingly. Every magistrate of the two highest ranks, consul and praetor, was assumed to be suited for command of an army, an assumption that led to disaster against Hannibal. The independent commanders, however, since they raised their armies largely from the impoverished landless farmers, furnished their men’s armor and weapons out of their own private wealth and promised the soldiers rewards of money and land when they returned victorious. The result was ruin for the Republic. It brought into existence large armed bodies that owed allegiance to their commanders and not to the state – SPQR, the Senate and the People of Rome. Finally, then, the effect of these two long-standing crises was to bring on an open break between the legitimate government, represented by the Senate, and the party of revolution in the person of Julius Caesar. So helpless was the Senate before this challenge that it had to appeal to Pompey, the only non-Caesarian independent commander still alive, for protection.
As a result of the Roman Civil War, written up in detail by that indefatigable recorder of his own greatness, Julius Caesar himself, the Republic fell. Die-hard Republicans refused to accept the initial outcome. Not realizing that they were solving and could solve nothing that had made the Republic ungovernable, they assassinated Caesar, hoping that the ship of state would somehow right itself. It did not. After two renewals of civil war divided by the mass murder of all the Caesarian Party’s enemies in Rome itself, the Empire – the new monarchy -- was established.
The United States has met and surmounted many crises in its more than 200 years of republican history, some of them brought upon it by its own ill-advised policies. As yet not one, except the War Between the States, has proved intractable enough to endanger the republican form. For this reason, in spite of a sclerotic bureaucracy, a detested Supreme Court, a kleptocratic and contemptible Congress, and a sometimes incompetent President, America continues to bumble forward under what remains of its Constitution. We may ask this, however: In the fraught history of our time do there exist crises that might prove so intractable and long-lasting as to bring our country to that final, desperate moment when – to save the American nation – a monarchy will be substituted for the Republic? Well, maybe.
Illegal immigration is certainly one problem that might bring down the house, but it seems unlikely to do so anytime soon. The revolt against the so-called reform bill, in spite of rather careless and inflamed rhetoric by both sides, was not spurred by anything more “racist,” to use a popular but inapropos term, than the citizens’ irritation at the illegals’ marches carrying Mexican flags. That, of course, was a public relations mistake by the organizers, and in later marches United States flags were carried. Motivation for the revolt was expressed by many of the people who took part as being almost entirely against, not the Mexicans themselves, but the government in Washington, which has failed for decades to keep its promises on immigration and even to enforce its own immigration laws. In fact, this contempt in which many Americans hold Washington is the most directly anti-republican element in the entire spectrum of contemporary conflicts. If illegal immigration is to contribute directly to the fall of the Republic, it will only be in long-term combination with multiculturalism. The feckless intelligentsia promotes multiculturalism and national self-hatred in our public schools and universities, weakening the nation’s social cohesion by following its own imaginings and without thought for a real future. The central government, entranced by the dreamy voices of the professional intelligentsia, cooperates in this suicidal journey by making many languages, especially Spanish, official languages of administration. Rome, more wise than Twenty-first Century America, made Latin its language of administration from east to west, even when faced by a higher-cultural tongue, Greek. This policy preserved Romanness until the Sixth Century A.D., even in the Greek East, and far longer in the West.
Other needs for reform, like that of Social Security, will lead to crises that are equally inescapable, but perhaps even more distant. The Congress, however – now wearing its pusillanimous plumage – prefers to let them all wait, the political parties no doubt hoping to make electoral profit from them when they become more threatening. The political parties, of course, in existence in one form or another since the nation’s beginnings, have constantly ignored Washington’s warning in his Farewell Address against “party spirit” as a threat to national union, and stand today, especially the Democrats, as the very embodiment of that ruinous “party spirit.”
It is the largely international crisis of Islamic Jihadism that is far more likely to end the republican form of government in America soon than any purely domestic failure. The great escape valve for America’s problems has always been elections. The hope of the Republic has been that the nation’s problems can be fixed by “turning the rascals out.” Right now the evidence from Congress is that the “turnout” doesn’t always bring improvement. What hope is there in elections if the rascals out of power are worse than those in power? Nevertheless, as long as the people believe that their votes can somehow force the central government to find a solution, the Republic seems in little danger. On the other hand, if the position taken in our own time by the Democratic Party, amounting to a complete denial of jihadist threat, is rewarded by the voters, and if, as a result, the jihadists succeed in imposing an even more damaging attack on America than 9/11, the Republic’s danger might become extreme.
First of all, there would almost certainly be a declaration of martial law throughout the land. If the center of civilian government were eliminated by a nuclear weapon in Washington, D.C., there would be at least a temporary military government. Considering that the military would not condone surrender and that martial law – recalling the precedent of the War Between the States – might last as long as the resistance to jihad, one might foresee a government, monarchical in fact though still republican in appearance, lasting many years and approximating the Roman Principate. The Principate, a time of introduction to the Empire under Augustus Caesar, was one-man rule under color of restoring the Republic. It fooled only some, but made monarchy palatable to the Roman people, who hated the word rex – that is, king. This would be true even if a provisional military government were to arrange elections for a new civilian government, relocated -- say -- to Omaha. The two-party system would have been thoroughly discredited and, depending on how well the new government had met America’s needs, few might yearn for a return to the old, inefficient Republic when the national emergency eventually came to an end.
For most of the Twentieth Century the United States was looked upon by much of Europe as its defender against German or Soviet aggression, but now a Europe that welcomed NATO seems ready to submit to an Islamic Caliphate just so long as it is allowed to die quietly. China, reversing centuries of Imperial policy, is building a blue-water navy and a long-range missile capability that can only be aimed first at the United States and later at a depopulated Russia. These are only a few among the most pressing of many anti-American foreign challenges. For them also, the cutthroat partisanship of the Democrats presages governmental inability to deal with the crises.
No, America is not yet an empire, just a big, militarily and economically powerful, culturally influential republic. It may be, though, that what historians will someday call its Republican Period is nearer to an end than we suspect.