Much of the focus in this series of articles has been on the meteoric rise and eventual downfall of the Roman Empire, and how this correlates to similar patterns in American history.
However, there is a dark side contributing to the narrative of decline that challenges the idea of Rome as “virtuous”—or of America as the “Land of the Free.”
The notion of freedom is probably best encapsulated as the opposite of enslavement. Similarly, our cherished concept of liberty is basically understood as the absence of coercion.
Not only have “freedom” and “liberty” not necessarily been widespread features of United States history, but there is ample evidence that they are not realities for an excessive portion of American citizens. Perhaps the best example thereof is the country’s state of mass incarceration.
Legacy of Slavery
Near the height of the Roman Empire, scholars estimate that as high as 40% to 50% of the population on the Italian peninsula (excluding the rest of the empire, which totaled some 70 million inhabitants) was enslaved. Although not based on race or ethnicity and not entirely devoid of avenues for manumission (the purchasing of one’s freedom), slavery in Ancient Rome was hardly a benign institution. Untold slaves were taken from the ranks of conquered peoples by the Romans as war spoils. Interestingly, however, many Roman slaves were physicians or engineers in addition to being servants, which somewhat challenges the notion of a slave as an unskilled laborer.
There are some key differences between Roman slavery and its contemporary manifestation in the United States. In Ancient Rome, manumission of slaves was more common. (However, a proposed law to have slaves dressed in an identifiable way was rejected on the grounds that the slaves may become emboldened once they saw their numbers and choose to revolt.) Once freed, they could not hold public office, but were afforded virtually all other rights enjoyed by full Roman citizens.
This isn’t to say that the enslaved were necessarily well-treated by their masters in Rome. Abuse, violence, and other atrocities were hardly uncommon, especially in the countryside. The hodgepodge of Roman law regarding slaves was consistent in one regard: until they secured their freedom, slaves had no rights. Although it was technically unlawful to murder or abuse a slave, this type of behavior generally still went on with impunity.
Both at the time and in many contemporary histories written about the topic, the seriousness of the slavery issue in Rome as well as America has frequently been downplayed. It isn’t often that discussions of the Roman Empire’s downfall focus on slavery; it is usually considered an ancillary problem. These two examples—Rome and the U.S.A.—nonetheless provide evidence that the festering evil of slavery is indeed incompatible with a free and prosperous society. The relative growth and prosperity under these empires, like during the “Gilded Age” that followed the U.S. Civil War, have a way of masking these underlying structural problems.
The apparent turning point in America’s dark history of treating a whole class of human beings like property is the Emancipation Proclamation, enshrined in the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Yet the documentary filmmaker Ava DuVernay recently made headlines with her recasting of the celebrated 13th amendment as a means for perpetuating oppression rather than removing it entirely.¹ DuVernay’s analysis focuses on the specific language of the amendment. The wording of the amendment outlaws forced labor (i.e. slavery) except in the event that someone is imprisoned. In a manner that should appear ironic to modern observers, the 13th amendment codifies the notion that enslavement (or something closely approaching it) can actually be foisted upon American citizens if they find themselves in trouble with the justice system. This is carried on through an informal system known as mass incarceration.
The United States currently has the world’s largest prison population. One wonders how this is possible in a nation that is, by and large, the most affluent the world has ever seen. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an advocate of originalist and textualist legal theory as well as a champion of conservative causes, deemed this situation the carceral state, or a government of the prisons rather than one of the people. One of Scalia’s peers, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, recently picked up this idea from Scalia; she wrote in a recent court opinion that increasing attacks on civil liberties and the trend toward a prison-industrial complex “implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
Scalia was not the first to bring attention to this philosophy, however. It’s very likely he was familiar with the work of renowned French intellectual Michel Foucault (1926-1984), who mixed historical analysis and what we might call postmodern philosophy in his research into the mechanisms of power in society. Foucault thoroughly explored the idea of the Panopticon, an invention of Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The Panopticon was a penitentiary designed with cells encircling a central observatory, where a single guard could monitor all of the inmates at all times. Writing primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Foucault could already see the ways in which the authorities increasingly used mass surveillance and physical barriers to control the population. Governments around the world achieve a level of panoptic control even for those beyond the walls of a correctional facility.
Today, more than 2 million Americans are incarcerated. When you include the number of people on parole or probation, the number swells to nearly 7 million.
Foucault’s contributions to the fields of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and history are immeasurably large. Similar to Scalia’s invocation of the “carceral state,” Foucault’s work Discipline and Punish introduced the idea of the carceral archipelago, where the whole penal institution functions like a chain of prison “islands.”²
American prisons are now their own cottage industry. They are widely privatized, turning a profit for private companies. Moreover, the virtue of work-release programs notwithstanding, the type of forced labor that inmates are subjected to is often in service of the state—such as the popular image of prison inmates stamping license plates.
Most people find the idea of making prisoners economically productive uncontroversial. However, when their productivity is directed toward state functions, you can begin to see the dangers of incentivizing the locking up of citizens.
Blight On History
While Foucault’s work has been criticized for, among other flaws, rejecting ideas like progress or universal morality, they are instructive when considering the nature of power, oppression, and punishment throughout history. One of his strongest arguments in this regard emphasized the way the penal system reinforces itself. Foucault asserts that recidivism rather than reformation or “rehabilitation” is the end result of the Western prison system, whether intended or not. The evidence largely backs up this claim.
Where slavery and despotic rule became a means for Rome to control her empire, America increasingly uses the long arm of the law against its own melting pot of citizens. Even in the absence of outright slavery or de jure segregation, the same hierarchical divisions and inequality exist in the U.S. today, as they did in different forms in Ancient Rome. This is yet another indication that the period of Pax Americana is paradoxically the best of times and the worst of times, as Dickens may have described it. Although most Americans have enjoyed the benefits of Pax Americana, the ballooning U.S. prison population is a feature of an empire in decline. For millions of Americans, losing one’s freedom—even if only briefly—is an experience that is far too commonplace.
As an empire declines and degrades, such problems can become more pronounced. (Said differently, the waning years of an empire are not generally a time ripe for making progress on various ills.) They also spill over into the era that succeeds the fallen empire, shaping history that’s yet to be written, so to speak.
Consider the wounded, divided United States after the Civil War. (Earlier, we identified the Civil War as an approximate corollary for the “end of the republic” and “birth of an empire” in Rome.) The same geographic, racial, and political fault lines from the antebellum period still existed; they simply took on new forms under the emerging imperial order. The same is true of contemporary issues like mass incarceration, the “surveillance state,” widening inequality, and racism. Whatever arrangement replaces the American Empire will hardly be free of its festering problems—and, in all likelihood, will be defined by them.
- Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “Ava DuVernay’s 13th Reframes American History.” The Atlantic. 6 Oct 2016.
- “Carceral archipelago.” Wikipedia.