The example of the first great republic in recorded history (509 B.C. to 29 B.C.) was omnipresent in the minds of America’s founders as they created a new republic centuries later. As a consequence of their deliberations and, perhaps, the “protection of divine Providence” as written in the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America, in the mind of many of the founders, was intended to be the modern equivalent of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic ended with the infamous assassination of Julius Caesar in 27 B.C..
After a protracted civil war, Octavian became the first “Imperator Caesar,” or Roman emperor. The subsequent period – post-republic – of Roman dominance is known in history as the “Roman Empire.” While Rome enjoyed an additional 500 years of world dominance and internal conflict under the Caesars, history reports its disintegration in the fifth century A.D. (476 A.D.) following the successful invasion of the barbarian Germanic tribes.
Common Influences on the Founding of Each Society
While the facts of the founding of the Italian city Rome are shrouded in myth, the Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C. by the overthrow of the last Roman king (Lucius Tarquinius Superbus) and expulsion of the Etruscan theocratic government by the Latins, one of the three Italic tribes in central and southern Italy. Similarly, the “Republic for the United States of America” was birthed in a bloody revolution against the British King George more than 2,000 years later.
According to historian Carl J. Richard in “Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers,” the earlier Roman Republic heavily influenced the founders of America who shared many common fears and hopes of the earlier architects of that Republic. These included the following:
- Fear of Centralized Authority. Having learned the lessons of despots and emperors, both societies attempted to establish checks and balances to avoid abuse of unchecked government power. The Romans replaced their king who served for life with a system of two consuls elected by citizens for an annual term. America’s founders created the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to diffuse potential power and abuse.
- Open Societies. Rome welcomed other people – particularly its vanquished enemies – into Roman citizenship, even accepting the gods of the newcomers. Likewise, America has long been recognized as a “melting pot.”
- Selfless Leadership. Rooted in agrarian societies, commitment to family and mutual citizen interdependence were basic in each society. Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer, saved the republic from invading Aequi tribes in 458 B.C. and again in 439 B.C. when a conspiracy threatened the government. In both cases, he was named dictator, but shortly thereafter resigned his commission to return to farming. George Washington, a Virginia farmer who led the fight against the British, resigned after his second term as president to return to his Virginia estate. Both men are examples of leaders who put the needs of their country before their personal interests.
As a consequence of its influence with the founders, Roman symbolism is rampant in American society. The Eagle is the symbol of both, and Latin inscriptions can be found on all 13 original states’ seals, as well as the Great Seal of the United States. Roman sayings and symbols are on American currency; early American coins had the head of a Roman on one side because the founders did not want to have a king on their coins.
The Latin sayings Annuit coeptis (“He approves of the undertaking”) and Novus ordo Seclorum (“A new order of the ages’) are above and below the unfinished pyramid on the one dollar bill. The American founders clearly desired to emulate the best elements of the Roman Republic in the new republic, while avoiding the excesses that led its transformation into the Roman Empire.
James Madison in particular worried that the intemperance and extravagance of the later Roman Empire might also emerge in the new nation. As a consequence, the fourth president was adamant that the country was not like Rome. Writing in the Federalist paper No. 63, he declared that the example of the government during the period of the Roman empire, especially the Senate, was “unfit for the imitation, as they are repugnant to the genius of America.”
Parallels Between the Republics
Despite the efforts of some American leaders to set a different course than that experienced by the Roman Republic, an analysis of the two is inevitable. Cullen Murphy, former managing editor of “The Atlantic” and current editor-at-large of “Vanity Fair,” identified numerous similarities between the two civilizations in his 2007 book “Are We Rome?“
- Global Influence and Dominance. Both societies were the preeminent entities in their worlds including “hard” power (military might and economic power) and “soft” power (language, culture, commerce, technology and ideas). Their dominant stature is taken for granted within their own societies and the world at large.
- Solipsism. Americans have long believed that they are the straw that stirs the drink with qualities and abilities superior to other countries. In ancient days, all roads led to Rome, the center of the Ancient World – or so Roman citizens believed. Publius Cornelius Tacitus claimed that even “things atrocious and shameless flock from all parts to Rome.” According to Murphy, “Both see themselves as chosen people and both see their national character as exceptional.”
- Political Corruption. Like America today, politicians in the Roman Republic had difficulty differentiating between public and private responsibilities and public and private resources. As a consequence, public services declined while the pockets of the public officials and their patrician sponsors grew large at the expense of common citizens. Numerous reforms were attempted to curb excesses, but were resisted by the ruling patrician class, echoing the partisan battles in American government today.
- Foreign Wars. For the past century, America has been preoccupied with war, either fighting a war, recovering from a war, or preparing for a war. The list includes World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), the Cold War (1947-1991), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1954-1975), the Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghanistan (2001- ?), and Iraq (2003-2011). The list does not include the continuous fight against domestic and foreign terrorism. As a consequence, domestic problems lack attention and priority. The Roman wars include the initial overthrow of the King followed by 50 years of battle to subjugate the southern peninsula of Italy. Over the next four centuries, they repelled numerous Celtic invasions from the north and fought three Samnite Wars (343-282 B.C.), the Pyrrhic War (280-275 B.C.), the Punic Wars (274-148 B.C.), four Macedonian wars (215-148 B.C.), and the Jugurthine War (111-104 B.C.). These battles do not include numerous barbarian invasions, slave rebellions, and regular skirmishes with pirates who continuously threatened trade routes on which the republic depended.
- Collapse of the Middle Class. The Roman middle class was crushed by cheap overseas slave labor; the rising income inequality due to technological change and the transfer of jobs to overseas labor threatens the middle class of America today.
- Loss of Political Compromise. Just as Republicans and Democrats are focused on political gain rather than the public good, the inability of the opposing political parties of the Roman Republic – Optimates (aristocrats) and Populares (populists) – to work together led to the imposition of Caesar as dictator and the end of the Republic.
While the Roman Republic survived approximately 500 years and the American Republic has been in existence less than 250 years, America does face a number of major challenges, any of which have the possibility of transforming the country and negatively affecting the populace. Our economic inability to satisfy all constituents, combined with societal disagreement over priorities and the growing rift between haves and have-nots, heightens the likelihood of social unrest, unprecedented political change, and the loss of worldwide supremacy.
Most economists project that America’s supremacy in the world will be lost by the mid-21st century to the countries of China, India, and Brazil.
Are Comparisons of Ancient Rome and Modern America Valid?
Dr. Joseph Tainter, an American anthropologist and author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” theorized that advanced, complex, and technically sophisticated societies such as modern America, the British Empire, and the Roman Republic inevitably collapse due to the inability of the resource base to sustain the society. The lack of sufficient resources to meet everyone’s wants and needs invariably stimulates internal strife, class warfare, and political division. Modern issues of this include:
- The country is less a melting pot today, but a stew of competing ethnic, racial, and social divisions
- National, state, and local debt loads are unsustainable
- Our elementary and secondary educational system ranks behind many of the other industrialized countries, even as the costs of a post-secondary education require students to assume thousands of dollars in personal student loan debt
- Our national infrastructure – roads and bridges – is falling apart from neglect and lack of maintenance even as our electronic infrastructure lags many of our international competitors
- Our healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, but mediocre by many world standards
- Political corruption is rife and influence is based by the size of financial donation to the political party and candidate
- Many political observers believe that in the era of rampant partisanship, America’s system of checks and balances in government is no longer operative
- The growing disparity income inequality creates class tension and social stress
In spite of a host of seemingly convincing similarities, considering Dr. Tainter’s analysis suggests that the aforementioned issues are often shared across many advanced societies. Therefore, the issues do not suggest a tie specifically between modern America and ancient Rome. In other words, the assumption that America will suffer the same fate as the Roman Republic is coincidental – any comparison of two dominant economic, military, or international countries, regardless of the type of government, would produce multiple parallels.
Differences Between the Republics
Further, historians and economists note a plethora of significant differences between the Roman and American Republics, including:
- Role of Technology. Rome’s entire existence was limited to the Iron Age where tools and weapons were primarily of the metal iron. Furthermore, the society was entirely agrarian, and the political system was simple and nascent. The Romans adopted technologies from their subject territories and were heavily dependent upon imports. By contrast, America was a leader of the Industrial Age, extended its leadership through the Information Age, and appears to be the leader of the Biotech Age. Some scientists believe that technological advances – led by nanotechnology and robotics – will create a new era of abundance, replacing the historical and dominant economic model of scarcity.
- Democracy. While Rome had a Republic, political power rested solely in the hands of the patricians, a small percentage of the educated, wealthy, and powerful in the general population. As Murphy admits, “Even at its most democratic, Rome was not remotely as democratic as America at its least democratic under the British monarchy.”
- Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are respected members of American society. Neither the Roman Republic nor the Roman Empire had a similar class of citizens. As a consequence, America is a hothouse of creativity and innovation while engineering breakthroughs of the older Roman society were limited.
- Social Equality. While America is seeing a widening gap between haves and have-nots, it still is far less glaring than that of the Roman Republic.
Not only is it inaccurate, but it’s ineffective to think the fate of modern America will follow that of Rome. We are not doomed to a similar outcome, though we need to take steps to prevent it.
Perhaps the single best hope for America and the world is the potential of emerging technologies to overcome the limitation of resources that has always existed. If the technological promises of nanotechnology, robotics, and biological breakthroughs can be realized, America’s democratic history, can-do spirit, and belief in social equality might prevail in a world of ideas, not shortages.
Do you think America is doomed to the same fate as the Roman Empire?