Roman conquest of Italy map

A Tale of Two Empires: Expansion and Exceptionalism

January 5th, 2017 by

Many of the best-remembered and most astonishing accomplishments made by the Romans during antiquity either occurred or began during the republican period from 509 BCE to the end of the 1st century BCE.

We generally associate Rome’s greatness with the successes of its empire. Indeed, this was when Roman power, influence, and culture were at their height. However, many of the developments that brought Ancient Rome to such prominence actually began or crystallized during the period of the Roman Republic.

The United States during the 19th and 20th centuries in some ways—at times, by conscious design—emulated the achievements and blueprint of the Roman Republic. Considering the two civilizations followed comparable paths toward global supremacy, some researchers believe the U.S. will likewise chart the same final route as Rome—toward eventual collapse.

Expansionary Era

Roman conquest of Italy map

Expansion of Rome’s sphere of influence over the first three centuries of the Republic

One of the first and foremost characteristics that defined Ancient Rome was the seemingly ceaseless expansion of the territory under its control. Remember that Rome began as just one city-state, albeit an important one. After subduing its rivals on the Italian peninsula, the Romans quickly turned their ambitions to the rest of the Mediterranean.¹

The difficulty and import of this successful conquest should not be understated: Though Roman culture actively persisted on for another millennium through the Byzantines after the western empire declined, the Italian peninsula would not be politically unified again until the late 19th century.

Similarly, if there was one thing that the fledgling union of former colonies in North America could usually agree upon, it was the expansion to new lands to the west. Like Rome’s progressive encroachment onto “barbarian” lands in order to secure itself from invasions and outside agitation, the early American settlers continued further west partly to push its frontier (and the American Indian tribes living on the other side of it) away from population centers along the Atlantic coast. The eventual stretch of the United States to the Pacific coast is one of the most interesting conquests in this regard.

Of course, the desire for power played a bigger role in territorial expansion in both cases. As the Romans conquered new lands, they plundered wealth, soldiers, and slaves from the subjugated lands. Sometimes, they simply incorporated these territories into the republic, extracting tribute and allegiance in war but allowing the foreign state to remain independent. (This was the form of rule that Rome pursued with many of the Greek states.) In this way, over time, Rome experienced great growth in its military strength. The same process happened in the U.S. as the republic matured: Once reliant upon militias and guerrilla warfare, America eventually grew into the world’s preeminent military and diplomatic power as it annexed more land and resources. With no official colonies, America’s period of imperialism has likewise tended to rely upon strategic alliances at times rather than wielding hard power.

The common thread between Rome and America’s military and territorial expansion is the march toward imperialism that it presaged. Rome’s history of military campaigns is vast and well-documented, achieving legendary status, and has been endlessly studied in the millennia since. Maintaining so many soldiers stationed abroad has consequences, however: being stretched too thin threatens the empire’s stability and security, and depletes resources. Down the road, territorial overreach (and occupation of a central role in the global economy) solidified both Rome and the U.S. as imperial superpowers—but also contributed to Rome’s gradual downfall.

We’ll focus on a few aspects of these expansionary trends that are reflected in both societies.

Conquest and Manifest Destiny

Intertwined with the idea of exceptionalism (considered below) was the sense of justification that the Romans had about acquiring territory. In a classic “chicken-or-egg” conundrum, it’s too complex to disentangle the cause of this cultural mentality. Did hegemony lead to these feelings of entitled superiority, or did those feelings begat the climb toward hegemonic power? What’s safe to say is that “exceptional status” was a strong belief in both America and Rome. Acclaimed author Cullen Murphy (Are We Rome?) describes this sensibility as “built into the very character of America . . . [and] was also built into the very character of Rome.”

In the U.S., “Manifest Destiny” was the popular notion that the settlement of the western portion of the North American continent was the providential right and duty of America. This notion had enormous implications on world history. A similar idea animated 19th-century and early-20th-century U.S. leaders to defend the “Monroe Doctrine,” the policy that only America (and not European powers) would enjoy a sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. America’s strategic imperial forays into the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and Mexico (while decrying its adversaries’ imperial ambitions) attest to the power of this concept. Rome similarly paid special attention to incursions in its own backyard, so to speak.

Economic Dominance

One of the direct economic benefits of controlling vast swaths of territory is access to resources in abundance. Whether agricultural or industrial, Rome and the U.S. took advantage of their capacity to be productive.

Ancient Silver Decadrachms from Syracuse, Sicily

image courtesy CoinWeek

This is why innovation and growing wealth were key features of both of these societies. Americans can lay claim to many seminal achievements in science, technology, and industry. The invention of the first airplane by the Wright brothers, or James Watt’s first patent for a rotary steam engine, are just two prominent examples. American ingenuity laid the foundation for later industrial and economic greatness.

Ancient Rome has also been noted for its effective use of science and technology in all manner of public works and infrastructure projects. The Romans engaged in large-scale mining for resources while marvels of Roman engineering helped create and sustain incredible cities and monuments across great distances. The physical manifestations of Rome’s growing dominance is captured by the classic saying, “All roads lead to Rome.” The seeds of this productive spirit sprouted during the republican period.

It’s also worth noting that the U.S. dollar and the most important ancient Roman gold coins, like the solidus and the aureus, were recognized as the preferred international standard of their time. However, this topic will be explored in greater detail in later installments in “A Tale of Two Empires.”

The Arch-Enemy

As Rome and America rose to prominence, they both showed a certain obsession with their principal rival. For the thriving post-WWII United States, this was the communist USSR; for the Roman Republic, the arch-rival was Carthage.

Although the U.S. “war” with the Soviet Union was a Cold War, the same preoccupation with a rival power dominated foreign policy for multiple generations. The Romans harbored a similar paranoia about the Carthaginians. They would not tolerate another mercantile power in the Mediterranean. Between 264 BCE and 146 BCE, Rome fought three separate Punic Wars against Carthage. (Bear in mind that these were hardly the only major military conflicts Rome was engaged in.) In the end, the city of Carthage was virtually wiped off the map.²

Exceptionalism

As mentioned previously, the idea of exceptionalism goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of these two republics’ respective territory. While it’s true that “American Exceptionalism” is an important narrative that underpins many of the country’s greatest accomplishments, this ideology is also what Murphy and others have warned can be a symptom of decline.

This idea began virtuously enough. Early Americans, like their Roman counterparts, often identified with the story of Cincinnatus, a farmer and general who bravely led Rome to military victories in emergencies only to voluntarily relinquish the powers of dictator afterwards. In fact, he did this twice! Many see parallels between the story of Cincinnatus and George Washington’s actions as commander and president.

This noble notion of honor, however, eventually gave way to a smug sense of ideological superiority in Rome—even when she was not upholding those principles. Neither the U.S. (decimation of Native Americans; mass incarceration) nor Rome (razing defeated cities; selling prisoners into slavery) has always behaved virtuously in their conquests.

We see this turn toward smugness unfolding in America, as well.

Murphy points out that the Ancient Roman leadership and the Beltway elite in the contemporary U.S. share an inflated sense of their need to direct the affairs of the rest of the world:

“The fate of the ancient world was now decided in the miniature world of one city. Her town councillors and magistrates suddenly were of importance to Greek trade, Egyptian grain, or wars in Spain.

“What had once been a political system developed to deal with a regional city state in central Italy now bore the weight of the world.”

It’s not difficult to observe the way in which the power elite in Washington, D.C. increasingly operate in an insular bubble that reality often cannot penetrate. In a nod to the eventual fall of Rome, Murphy writes:

“The Romans were a supremely successful assimilationist state in that they were able to absorb many different kinds of people into their polity and make them into Romans. But they weren’t particularly good at figuring out the mentality of people who were truly beyond the pale. The fact that they referred to them as ‘barbarians’ is an indication. As a result, they did land themselves in trouble time and again by not understanding and then underestimating the capacity of people outside their borders.”³

One could certainly make these same arguments about the U.S. At what point do we begin to heed the lessons from Rome’s mistakes?

Be sure to check back for the next chapter of “A Tale of Two Empires.”

 

Notes

  1. F. Cavazzi, “The Early Roman Republic.” Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. 2012. <www.roman-empire.net>
  2. Ibid.
  3. Gina Hahn, “As the Romans Did.” The Atlantic. June 2007.