Roman Empire map

Introducing “A Tale of Two Empires”

December 27th, 2016 by

Gold Solidus of East Roman Emperor Anastasius I (British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Gold Solidus of East Roman Emperor Anastasius I (British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

As far back as the 19th century, and continuing to the present day, many historians have been fascinated by the apparent similarities between the Roman Empire and the modern United States. Several of the parallels are striking: military forces stretched around the globe, a strong sense of cultural exceptionalism, and especially similar economic patterns in the transition from republic to empire. Even their coins share similar symbolism!

Over the course of a series of in-depth articles, we’ll explore this comparison between Ancient Roman civilization and the contemporary American empire. In a number of ways, the experiment of representative democracy in the United States, and America’s ascendancy as a global superpower, mirrors the experience of the Roman Republic and the imperial hegemon that succeeded it.

“A Tale of Two Empires”

Entire books have been written about the connections between today’s American economy and the Roman Empire. In fact, there’s so much ground to cover on this front that we could never tackle all of it at once. Here are a few themes of overlap between Rome and the U.S. that subsequent articles in this series we’re calling “A Tale of Two Empires” will address:

  • Both the Ancient Romans and generations of Americans borrow heavily from their cultural predecessors (Ancient Greece and the British Empire, respectively) which shapes their national identities, especially in the field of law.
  • An early revulsion to monarchies is eventually worn down as more and more power becomes centralized. Political power progressively is concentrated under the command of the chief executive. 
  • The indefinite extension of emergency executive powers during crises increasingly becomes the norm. Expansionary wars stretch the empire’s resources thin.
  • Patriotic sentiment is focused on defeating “The Great Foe”—Carthage for the Roman Republic, the U.S.S.R. for the United States during the Cold War.
  • A culture of exceptionalism is seen as a civic virtue and widely accepted. Efforts are made to assimilate the rest of the world into these dominant cultural values.
  • An expansion of citizenship rights over time is partly blamed for the empire’s decline.
  • The political elite and the rich are entrenched but begin to see their power challenged.
Roman Empire map

Map of Roman Empire in 1st Century CE

These are only a few examples of the myriad comparisons that are worthy of discussion. Rest assured that there’s much more to come!

We all have the benefit of hindsight to see that the Roman Empire eventually collapsed under its own weight—with an unsustainable economy and threats both from within and from without its borders. This raises a crucial question: Will America ultimately suffer the same fate, or will the 21st century turn out to be a “New American Century”?¹

“A Tale of Two Empires” Episodes

Notes

  1. Joseph S. Nye Jr., Is the American Century Over? John Wiley & Sons. 2015.