America began as a republic, but its power and influence ostensibly extended far beyond the continent of North America by the late 19th century. It in fact became a global superpower.
This shift from an isolationist foreign policy to a more aggressive imperialism took place over decades, culminating in what many historians consider the “high point” of America’s pursuit of an empire. We are finding more and more, however, that the United States’ imperial role around the world is not wholly a circumstance of the past. In subtle forms, it continues to this very day.
Exploring the similarities between this process and the Roman Empire, as well as the British Empire and the short-lived Napoleonic Empire, illuminates some interesting implications of America’s potential to lose hegemony in the 21st century.
From Consul to Caesar
Many will argue that American democracy has not yet been replaced by an empire, and they will point to the lack of an emperor or military dictatorship to support this distinction. True as this may be, many of the other qualities that characterized past empires have already been a reality for the U.S. for over a century.
First, we’ll look at Rome’s dramatic and momentous shift toward empire. Then we’ll compare it (and its implications) to the gradual, more informal evolution of America into an empire.
As detailed in a previous chapter, there was already an erosion of republicanism in Ancient Rome in the final centuries prior to the beginning of the “Common Era” (CE, in the past known as AD). The concentration and arbitrary use of power became increasingly commonplace in this lead-up to the eve of the empire. The rules of civil society, so to speak, broke down to the extent that a strong leader seizing dictatorial power proved a more orderly state of affairs than the current system. In the final stages of Rome’s transition to empire, ambitious leaders like Pompey and Crassus, as well as Julius Caesar and Octavius (later known by the title Caesar Augustus), would come to exercise almost unlimited power.
Consider the nature of the consulship, the highest executive office during the time of the republic. Increasingly, the consuls acted unilaterally and commanded legions of soldiers to back up their executive prerogative.
This is perhaps most apparent around 70 BCE, when a pair of men took advantage of the deteriorating republican tradition in Rome to attain power. Pompey, a military hero, and Crassus, the richest man in Rome at the time, were each elected consul despite the fact that they were technically ineligible according to the constitution. The rise of Julius Caesar during the following decade led to an unprecedented arrangement: the so-called “first triumvirate.”¹
Essentially, the three men worked together to form an alliance. Each were populist politicians with a loyal following and loyal ex-soldiers at their disposal. They were primarily opposed by the Senate—a circumstance that was to be replayed time and again. The tension between the caesar and the Senate in some ways resembles the gridlock between the unpopular U.S. Congress and the president.
Pompey was a military hero; Crassus was fantastically wealthy; Caesar was immensely popular and gained notoriety for his own military exploits in Spain, Gaul, the Germanic lands, and the southern part of Britain. Around 50 BCE, the inevitability of a civil war between the troops Caesar could command and the troops Pompey could command became clear. Historians point to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, the river separating northern Italy from Gaul, as the first salvo in this civil war.
Though, by Julius Caesar’s own admission, Pompey at times outmaneuvered his erstwhile ally, ultimately the loyalty of most soldiers was to Caesar. Within six months, he had effectively taken control of Rome. He still had to wrest control of Spain, North Africa, and the seas from Pompey’s men, who had previously rid the trade routes of pirates, and he also became enmeshed in a political controversy in Egypt. Once resolved, this left the famous Cleopatra in charge of Egypt as Caesar’s co-regent.
Julius Caesar’s conquest was nearly total, and he set about reshaping Rome in the imperial image we have become most familiar with. Ironically enough, the ascension of an emperor actually led to a number of reforms and accomplishments, not unlike the effective reforms enacted through the Napoleonic Code in post-revolutionary France. Caesar established the Julian calendar that is still in use in only a slightly different form in the West today.
We know, of course, that Caesar’s immense power and influence was a direct threat to the senators, who conspired to murder him on the Ides of March (March 15th). After his assassination in 44 BCE, the conspirators attempted to resurrect the triumvirate and the republic. This served only as a stop-gap measure, however: another civil war pitted one of Caesar’s top lieutenants, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), against the fallen emperor’s son, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius. While Mark Antony teamed up with Cleopatra, Octavius had the support of the vast number of Roman legions. He routed his enemies and became the first official emperor of Rome, thereafter known as Caesar Augustus. He relinquished his emergency powers as imperator—only to then have them codified in the constitution. The Roman Republic was relegated irreversibly to the past.
Colonialism by Any Other Name
We see many of the prerequisite conditions for the end of the Roman Republic manifesting in contemporary American life, as well. This comparison, of course, rests upon the idea that America has already shown herself to be an empire in at least a few important ways. While the parallels between Rome and modern powers (like America or Great Britain) has several convincing proponents, many experts (and our readers!) have questioned whether the comparison is warranted at all. So let’s set out to knock down this notion that the U.S. actually operates as a de facto empire.
Although the events are temporally removed from the example of Ancient Rome by about nineteen centuries, the steady march of American imperialism starting in the middle of the 1800s is not unlike Rome’s progressive expansion into an empire. Beginning in Mexico and later expanding to include the Caribbean and Pacific, America’s imperial ambitions were more pronounced than many would care to admit.
As the image above implies, turn-of-the-century (the 20th century, that is) Americans came to see themselves as the leaders of an empire that covered “Ten thousand miles from tip to tip,” stretching from Manila (in the Philippines) to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In the same year indicated on this image, 1898, the American Anti-Imperialist League was founded to combat this growing imperial sentiment. This speaks to the degree to which Americans saw themselves, much as the Romans did, as an exceptional culture uniquely worthy of global domination.² In this regard, one could readily make the same claim about subjects of the British Empire, the French Empire, the Russian Empire, and virtually every empire between antiquity and today. The “imperial mindset” of superiority is undoubtedly alluring, and seems to be a common feature among great powers.
However, one of the distinguishing aspects of the American Empire is the manner in which its existence is ignored or outright denied. More so than the multitude of empires that preceded it, America holds onto the idealized image of its republican and democratic values. It hardly acknowledges its imperial nature, historically refusing to officially treat its possessions abroad as “colonies.” (Political correctness trumps reality.) Yet you will find American military force and American corporations operating in every corner of the planet.
In addition to wielding hard power in the form of military might, America also makes use of its “soft power” to influence foreign affairs. This includes the crucial role our currency, the dollar, plays in the global financial system; the sway the U.S. holds over supranational organizations like NATO and the United Nations (UN); and even in the way that American popular culture shapes habits and trends around the rest of the world. This process is two-directional, as well: Both Rome and the U.S. took advantage of their soft power and territorial reach to import the world’s finest goods, resources, and talented people into the empire.
Another similarity between the U.S. and Rome along these lines is the views of the imperial power within and without “the city”—in America’s case, the insulated bubble of the Washington, D.C. “Beltway.” Internally, Rome’s political class was often riddled by divided loyalties, especially among the proconsuls commanding different regions of the empire. The political elite in the U.S. are grappling with the same polarization that has gone beyond mere partisanship. Moreover, the international order in the post-9/11 world has grown especially wary of American power and shown unprecedented animosity to an American-led international system. The same antagonism met the Romans in foreign lands they had conquered the more that time went on, which increasingly placed Rome in the crosshairs of vengeful enemies.
There’s no doubt that the achievements of Ancient Rome are a crucial backbone to the structure of modern societies, especially those in the West. However, the early period of the Roman Empire foreshadowed many of the fault lines that would contribute to the empire’s downfall, such as the decay of unifying values and national identity, general social unrest, financial and political abuses by the power-elites, and a cultural arrogance that begat entitlement and complacency.
The notion that the United States constitutes a modern-day empire is eminently defensible. When “A Tale of Two Empires” returns, we’ll cover some of the consequences—both positive and negative—of this arrangement.