"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 topic.
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 fills 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 regularly 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
(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.
"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.