Notes on the Parallels Between Rome and America

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"To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace". -Tacitus, Roman senator and historian (AD 56-117)


Comparisons between Rome and America are plentiful and have a long history. I'm sure many have been specious while others insightful and on the mark. These comparisons are not always simply metaphors either. The founding fathers of the United States were profoundly influenced by Rome and Roman writers, and they were explicit about this in the creation of the country. See the Entitled Opinions podcast 'Classicism in America' (free on itunes here, currently episode 38) for a rich introduction to this history.

The following is a collection of resources around the possible parallels between Rome and the United States. I've been slowly accumulating a small satchel of materials around this topic and I'm going empty the contents now, even though they deserve a much deeper exploration in the future with much fuller conclusions. Nevertheless, I'll make a few preliminary observations of my own, and link to a bunch of resources that can used to further explore the

I personally started to notice similarities between the world of Rome and the current state of the US while watching HBO's excellent series Rome (which lasted for only two seasons, alas). Certain common themes started to pop forth for me. One in particular was the detachment, decadence and debauchery of the wealthy ruling elites in Rome, which reminded me of the steady stream of cocaine and high class prostitutes that Wall St. bankers were enjoying as they knowingly committed crimes and gamed the financial system. This was shown in the documentary Inside Job and in the book Cityboy, where insider Geraint Anderson revealed a similar culture in the financial elite of London. The documentary Enron- The Smartest Guys in the Room is also very illuminating in this regard.

There were several other themes that stood out for me as I watched HBO's Rome (and listened to a pair of podcasts on Rome that I'll mention in a moment), and I think it's worth considering which of these have carried through into our day. They include: the powerful force of human ambition, and the horrors it's capable of; the long continuous history of warfare, conquest and plunder; the callous disregard of the 'plebs', or common people, by ruling classes; the incessant reality of political gamesmanship and intrigue; the culture of militarism and its political uses; the wanton slaughter of foreign peoples; ruling elites stifling the cultural-political system to protect their own private interests; and Rome going to war only after they'd been attacked in some manner, so they kept the moral highground and a heightened self-image as they carried out another bloodbath (*). I really recommend the series Rome for a taste of this world, and it's a very entertaining show to boot. Here's a trailer:


Terry Eagleton once remarked that today we live in a time of "the politics of amnesia". Our society is so caught up in the pop-culture saturated society of the spectacle that we've forgotten history and the self-knowledge that comes with it. As Eagleton puts it, "There's a historical vortex at the center of our thought which drags it out of true. Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-upholstered appearance, is of recent vintage" (1). This is one of the reasons why I've been really appreciating learning about history in general these days, and Rome in particular; it Romefills in the story, and it reveals many patterns of human behavior and culture that have a long history which still endures today, although sometimes more subtly. And these patterns are a lot more recognizable once we've spent some time with their considerable prehistory. (esp. 'darker' traits such as brutality, ambition, corruption, murder, deception, plunder and betrayal).

I've found that this "historical vortex" can be quite pronounced in many who are interested in integral philosophy too. There can be a laziness in simply accepting the prescribed meta-labels of the stages of history, and these extraordinarily rich periods often get reduced down to five or so traits. There's a certain violence in this that in my view needs to be overcome by a new historical granularity.

Furthermore, these myriad traits more often than not persist, the key but often forgotten realization at the heart of the integral worldview. To deny or overlook this fact is to be blind to the Great Train of Prehension, the speeding weight of habit and pattern that gets carried along within the new (2). We put ourselves at great risk for not being present to this. We become much more susceptible to all kinds of persuasion, foiled by the modern clothes that are draped thinly over this ancient interior.

Just over a year ago Andrew introduced two podcasts on Rome in a short Beams post called A History of Rome. It took me a while to get to that material, but I'm so glad I did. Both Dan Carlin's 6-part Death Throes of the Roman Republic and Mike Duncan's 179-part (!!) A History of Rome are excellent resources for this kind of historical self-knowledge. I'm convinced there's not a crowded bus, train or traffic jam that can't be beat by listening to these shows! 



The other day I came across a book called Are We Rome?- The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America from 2007. Author Cullen Murphy draws many parallels between Rome and the US of today, and you can read an interview with Murphy here, and a NY Times review of the book here. One of the many similarities Murphy highlights is "the debilitating effect of endemic bribery [and corruption] in public life". For a good look at this is in the contemporary American context, see the documentary Casino Jack and The United States of Money. Here's a trailer for that film:


Another similarity noticed by Murphy and others is a rampant inequality between the rich and the poor. In fact, a study came out just a couple of weeks ago claiming that current US income inequality is greater than the levels in the Roman Empire. Another recent study argued that current income inequality in the US is also greater than at the time of slavery. One article commenting on these studies remarked that the CIA regularlyalaric sack of rome1 updates its numbers regarding income distribution and inequality in nations around the world. Presumably this is be aware of the possible outbreak of violence and popular revolts. This is probably wise, as the people of Rome revolted on these grounds on many occasions. Dennis Marker has recently written a book arguing that the US (and other nations) are heading toward a form of corporate feudalism. If this is true, and Marker makes a strong case, then we could be in for plenty of unrest indeed.

[above painting- The Sack of Rome by Alaric]

So those are just some resources around the parallels between Rome and the US (and by extension many other nations); a google search on this topic reveals many more. I think it's high time to move beyond the politics of amnesia. Our history endures within us and thus will always repeat itself. But in what form and with what creative and emergent inflection and redirection, will depend to a large extent our own historical self-understanding. Studying the long history of Rome and the ancient world is a good place to start that inquiry.


"The Romans robbed their own poor until they became great masters of that art, and knew by what laws it could be made to appear seemly and honest". - George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra



(1) Terry Eagleton. After Theory. Ch. 1.

(2) For a more detailed explanation of this point cf. my article with Troy Wiley Neotribal Zeitgeist (+ Companion Notes), in particular the middle section entitled Neotribalism Is Not A Regression.

(*) In the podcast A History of Rome, Mike Duncan mentions that Rome would often go to war on the flimsiest of pretexts, or would secretly provoke an enemy into attacking first. Also:

"That policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Roman's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest- why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs". Joseph Schumpeter. 'The Sociology of Imperialism'. Two Essays By Joseph Schumpeter. New York: Thomas Y Crowell, 1955. p.51.

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  • Comment Link David MacLeod Saturday, 29 September 2012 04:59 posted by David MacLeod

    Good topic, and it looks like you've collected some good resources. I'm reminded of the excellent educational series PBS used to run, called The Western Tradition, by Eugen Weber. Programs 9 - 14 cover Rome, and it looks like the series can be watched online here:

    Someone has posted some clips here on the topic Decline of Rome / Decline of America (crude video of camera on TV screen):

  • Comment Link Matthew Lewis Sunday, 30 September 2012 12:33 posted by Matthew Lewis

    While looking through Amazon, I stumbled on this book. Vaclav Smil is an astute writer, but often writing around energy. Thought it might be of interest.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 30 September 2012 16:54 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    David, thanks for the resources, looking forward to diggin into those too. I'd like to get my hands on a set of Will Durant's 'The Story of Civilization' one day too; they're out of print (alas), but a few used sets are around. Dan Carlin cites Durant a lot and considers him still a stellar resource. Not sure what made me think of that, I think I was reminded of this when looking at The Western Tradition series. But ya, thanks, that'll make for some good nighttime viewing.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 30 September 2012 17:50 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Matt, thanks, that books looks really interesting, and sounds like it's tightly argued. For me personally, my main interest or point of comparison between Rome and America is not the question of Empire and decline, or if the US is going to repeat this pattern. It's an interesting topic, and I have no doubt there's repeating patterns in these things that can be found. (I haven't read Jared Diamond's 'Collapse', but there's one scholar who is interested in trying to discern such patterns. I think you've read that no?).

    I'm personally really interested in how a whole series of human and cultural patterns/behaviors may or may not endure into our time. I think we often consider ourselves 'modern' or 'postmodern' or 'integral', as though there's been a clean break, and deny/suppress so much of our past that still persists at subtle or not so subtle levels. It's kind of a tangent, but there was a great Entitled Opinions where a scholar of the Enlightenment talked about how violence still persisted in the "men of Reason", the great leading figures of the age who thought they'd moved beyond it. It was sublimated into much more subtle places, even unconscious ones, but it was still there. It's really a fascinating and revealing point. You can listen to that podcast here:

    Anyway, would still love to dig into Smil's book. I'll try and find some reviews and articles in the meantime to get more a flavor of what he's saying. The big Empire question is still a juicy one too. cheers, thanks Matt.

  • Comment Link David MacLeod Tuesday, 16 October 2012 03:19 posted by David MacLeod

    I just came across a scrap of paper where I had transcribed an extended quote from Eugen Weber's "The Western Tradition" program. This is as good a place as any to share this:

    "The colonial process is not as simple as it is often painted and it does not operate in one direction only.

    The occupier does not simply rule the occupied; he infiltrates their consciousness, their lives, their culture. He takes hold of them inside and out.

    Technological innovations turned conjuries (?) of provinces into countries, spread modern skills, suggested the revival of native industry and enterprise in a new guise and on a new scale. And just as in Europe, all this has provided more efficient modern means for age old tendencies to exploit, to oppress, and to murder your enemies en masse.

    Historical experience is not a linear progression, its rather a meander - a river in whose waters you can never step twice, of course, but also one whose curves approach each other and ever flow through new, unexpected territories."

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 18 October 2012 20:47 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    David, thanks, that's a pretty dense and interesting quote. I'll have to keep an eye out for this piece in particular as I continue to dig into world history:

    "The occupier does not simply rule the occupied; he infiltrates their consciousness, their lives, their culture. He takes hold of them inside and out".

    In terms of Rome, many of the people it conquered were 'Romanized' along the way. But like I said, I'll keep an eye for this lens going forward, I don't have a ton of data for the point yet.

    Do you want to say more about things in that passage that strike you as interesting and/or important? I'll have to sit with it for awhile to let it sink in and to understand all of what it's saying/claiming, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the meantime. That third paragraph seems particularly key, but a little opaque to me at the moment.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 18 October 2012 21:37 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Here's a few points of comparison that have cropped up since the time of this post.

    There was an article in the New York Times review the other day called 'The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent'. Here's its major thesis:

    "The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness...

    The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish".

    The authors mention that this is a widely repeating cycle in the world, and this also was the case in the last 100 yrs of the Roman republic too (cf. Dan Carlin's podcast for details), with several major figures trying to break the deadlock of the elites, and several being assassinated by them. This wasn't the only thing that led to the demise of the republic and the rise of dictatorship (the emperors), but it was among them. There were also plenty of costly revolts in parts of the empire due to this kind of thing too.

    Another point- at 4:39 of History of Rome podcast episode 83, Mike Duncan makes the point that Romans and roman society had a strong sense of exceptionalism. Duncan says:

    "On a larger scale, [Hadrian's] promotion of Greece at the expense of Italy was not undertaken because he wanted to spit on Italian exceptionalism, but because he knew the long term interests of the empire begged for all the provinces to be united on a more equal footing. As I said when I was introducing Trajan, it was fast becoming counter-productive to view the empire as a vast collection of provinces ruled by Rome, rather than as a single cosmopolitan pan-Mediterranean unit. While the vast majority of subjects within the empire eyed this change of focus with relish, it all went over like a led balloon in Italy, where every man woman and child had been raised from birth to believe that they were in fact exceptional in every single way, and ruled the world by divine right".

    Of course the idea of American exceptionalism is well known and has a long history:

    It should be said that this self-view is not found only in these two peoples. I was doing a close reading of Genesis the other day in class, and this kind of promise was offered to the Jews by God several times. Like this passage in Genesis 26:3-4

    "Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and your descendents I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves through your offspring".

    So this is obviously a somewhat common theme/self-understanding historically, although I'd like to learn more about how this effects or has effected (positively or negatively) the political life of these nations. I'm sure someone has written on this at some point, will have to look for that.

    Lastly, in terms of general resources around Rome, came across this 4-part BBC History of Rome documentary the other night. I've found it a good accompaniment to the two podcasts.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 15 January 2013 00:41 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Here's a recent article at Salon called "8 Striking Parallels Between the US and the Roman Empire".

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